When I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention. It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night. At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”
I really didn’t know what it meant. I originally thought it was nice to talk about God. I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God. God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.
I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post. Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio. In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians. The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil. Watson writes:
Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.
The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:
One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?
For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.
God is a concept. It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking. When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.” We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come. But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come. We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world. We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.
As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.
Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places. More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.
The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.
About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation. The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life. I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met. I wish I had a chance to get to know him better. During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful. The priest was surprised to hear this. As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response. Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times. How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?
Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world. Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard. We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world. There is evil out there. There are men knocking their wives unconscious. There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body. There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys. There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children. Yes, there is evil. But God is also present. God hasn’t given up on creation. God has already overcome the world. THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.
I’m not leaving the mainline church. I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to. I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed. But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.
I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity. We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.
I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.” Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.
“Aslan is on the move.” It’s time we believe that again.