Jesus, God, Sin, and Empire


Blogger Greg Griffey has written a very nice entry on the subject of faith in God in the face of human suffering and war. Greg wrote:

May we draw closer to God in tragedy, realizing that God grieves with us. And in our response to God, may we embrace God's call to love and change.
This epitomizes what I would characterize as a mature faith. It isn't about earning a ticket to heaven, and it isn't about worshiping a Rescuer-In-The-Sky who will fix our problems in the here and now. It is, I believe, about sharing in God's grief for the tragedy of humanity, listening to God's call, and acting on that call to, as Greg puts it, "love and change".

If God grieves for the suffering and mistakes of the human race, then God is suffering an awful lot these days. And if panentheism is right that God includes the universe, then God isn't just suffering vicariously, but is in fact perfectly empathizing with every moment of pain that anyone has ever experienced. The best way we can prove our love for God is thus to do as much as possible to end the suffering that is caused by human folly.

But some might argue that, if you don't think that God intervenes in the world by violating the laws of nature from time to time, what's the point of even believing in God? And, for Christians, how does Jesus fit into this conception of God? Well, this is going to be a long answer, but here is my attempt at addressing this subject.

I cannot necessarily speak for everyone when I talk about the value that one finds in the religious life in the face of a God who is not interventionist in the classically defined sense of omnipotence. I do believe that there is a transcendent reality that I feel drawn to. I believe that this transcendent reality, which we call God, loves me and everyone else. And I believe that by developing a relationship with God, we can become more fully human and that we love others more deeply, and achieve our highest potential; and that, collectively, if all of us do that, we can build a better world. And to me, one's love for God becomes stronger once once sheds the notion of an interventionist Deity.

Philosophically and morally, it all just makes more sense to me. The problem of theodicy is intractable, as far as I am concerned, unless you move beyond the idea of an omnipotent God.
There is also the problem of how we, in this post-Enlightenment era, understand the way nature operates. The God of the Gaps is dead; it is a dead end to try to look for God to explain away that which science cannot explain, because science just gets better and better at closing those gaps in its knowledge. This is what Whitehead would have called a "category mistake"--we are confusing science with religion when we try to explain away scientific mysteries by appealing to God. I would argue that belief in miracles makes no sense anymore; even those who say they do believe in miracles, who who pray for God to intervene in the world, go through their lives as if the universe proceeds according to a set of predictable laws. Implicitly we are children of the Enlightenment, although theologically many of us don't want to admit it.

There are a lot of ways you can try to integrate the existence of God into post-enlightenment rationalism. Deism, for example, tried to do so by viewing God's creative role as having been restricted to initially creating the conditions and laws of the universe and then doing nothing after that--as the processes of repeated cause and effect produced the succession of events that occurred after that initial act of creation. Deism, unfortunately, was problematic because its mechanistic conception of the universe left free will completely out of the picture; and it was theologically unsatisfactory because it eliminated God entirely from playing any role whatsoever in the present-day universe. And for the believer, it is hard to have any kind of relationship with such a cold, distant Deity. Love is missing from the equation.

One of the reasons I am drawn to process theology is that it permits us to have a relationship with an intimate and loving God, but it also offers a way of integrating that faith in God with a rationalistic understanding of nature. By eliminating the traditional conception of omnipotence as a divine trait, it resolves a host of theological conundrums, not the least of which is the problem of theodicy; and at the same time it bridges many issues that divide science from religion, eliminating the God of the Gaps in the process. Yet, unlike deism, it does not deny that God plays an active role in the universe. According to process theology, God has been, in fact, active at every single instance throughout the history of the universe. And, in this view, God's role consists of issuing a call at every moment. This "call" from God represents what is called in Whiteheadian terminology the "initial aim" of each process. This "initial aim" represents the highest and best possible choice at every instant.

We can heed God's call. Or we can choose not to. Not to do so can be one way of defining what sin is. When we harm others, we are not listening to God's call--and thus we are sinning. When we start unnecessary wars in places like Iraq, we are not listening to God's call--and thus we are sinning. War, oppression, empire, violence, greed, economic exploitation, social injustice, sexism, racism, homophobia--these are all sins against God.

So if God's role is one of continually issuing calls to us at every moment of our existence, then Christians can easily develop an understanding of Jesus as one who was particularly attuned to the Divine call. To the extent that he listened well and heeded God's call, Jesus did not sin. Was he therefore perfect? Was he sinless?

In the April 2007 edition of the "Ask Dr. Cobb" column on the Process and Faith web site, Cobb addresses just this question. I think he raises a lot of important issues, and I would like to cite some of them here.

From the point of view of process theology, as mentioned, God offers an "initial aim" to each of us at every moment in the process of our lives. According to Cobb,
One difference between Jesus and me is undoubtedly that he was far more fully responsive to God’s call than am I. But that is simply a matter of degree. Far more important was the difference in the nature of the call. God called Jesus to proclaim and in some way to embody a fundamental alternative to the empire of his day, one that turned its values and practices upside down. God called Jesus to pursue this mission to the end even though it meant a terrible death. Jesus responded fully to that call. The result has been of enormous historical-spiritual importance to the world.
Cobb makes two extremely important points here. First, he notes that Jesus's response to the Divine call differed from what most of us do by degree rather than kind. It is common in Christian creeds to define Jesus as having been"fully human" and "fully divine". Despite the acknowledgment of his fully human nature, it is the supposedly fully divine attribute that makes him qualitatively different from us, and that poses a problem in how we can relate back to his human nature. But what if God is calling out to all of us, and all of us listen to and heed God's will at certain times? In that case, Jesus can be said to have been, as Cobb points out, better to a greater degree than most of us are at heeding this call, but this was a matter of degree rather than kind. All of us humans, Jesus included, are called by God. We all have the ability to listen to God's call, but some are better at it than others--and, Christians might say, in Jesus's case, he was particularly good at it.

Yet Cobb raises another, very important point--that even if the process of the divine call was the same for Jesus as it was for everyone else, the content of Jesus's call was special. In his case, he was specifically called to resist nonviolently the Roman empire--and yet also, by extension, all empires everywhere past, present, and future--and proclaim as an alternative the Kingdom of God, where the gates that exclude are smashed and where many of the ordinary rules of human society are turned upside down.

Cobb points out that this proclamation has largely become altered by Christians since this time:
Too many people have redirected their attention from living faithfully in the way Jesus exemplified and taught to glorifying the teacher. Announcing his sinlessness is one form of such pointless glorification. Glorification of the teacher can actually be turned into a club to condemn those who do not subscribe to some of the teachings involved in such glorification. Jesus called on us to love one another and even our enemies, and too often his glorification has been turned into an excuse to hate those who follow other teachers, or even those who follow Jesus in a different way.
The above quote is, in my view, a brilliant encapsulation of what I see as a significant problem of much of modern Christianity. Here we have two issues--the glorification of the teacher that can come at the expense of the teaching; and the exclusionary nature of the resulting religion. Much of the blame goes back a long way. Perhaps Jesus's message was too revolutionary for his followers to accept after he died. Christianity thus seemed to have turned itself inside out during its early evolution in the first centuries after the death of Jesus. Instead of being a religion about inclusion, it became a religion of gatekeepers. Instead of being about resistance to Empire, it became about accommodation to Empire.

This evolution and eventual reversal of Jesus's life and teachings with respect to Empire can be found even within the later writings of the New Testament era. Consider as an example this passage from 1 Peter 2:13, part of an epistle ostensibly written by the apostle Peter but actually written by an anonymous author, probably late in the first century: "For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right."

Wow. Imagine that. Jesus was executed by a human institution--the Roman Empire--for not accepting its authority--and yet, a later ostensible follower of Jesus was now advocating doing the opposite of what Jesus did. In the two centuries that followed the writing of that passage, things got only worse. Jesus's initial message against Empire was not just perverted, but in fact his ostensible followers were eventually coopted by the Roman Empire itself, as Christianity became the official religion of the very Empire that executed Jesus. As the Who once put it, "Meet the new boss--same as the old boss."

Yet, somehow, Jesus's message has managed not to be entirely lost in all of this haze. The Kingdom of God as a concept still manages to break through after all these centuries. More importantly, I think that God is still calling out to us, just as He/She called out to Jesus two thousand years ago. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus pointed out, is with us now, waiting to be fully realized. And God is still calling out to us to build that Kingdom.

I believe that God calls out to me at all times. The nature of this call is often difficult to discern. So is the content. Many of us struggle to listen to God. Not all of us are as finely attuned to God's call as Jesus was--not all of us do well as "spirit people", to borrow a term from Marcus Borg. But to me, religion is a process. Learning to discover God's call, and to heed it when we hear it, is a never-ending journey, at least for people like myself, who lack Jesus's apparent ease in this matter. Jesus points us the way to how we, too, can listen to God's call. And maybe, if we can do that, God will grieve just a little bit less.


Heather said...

I view a connection to God as a process, too. That is something that troubles me about conservative Christianty: hold the right set of beliefs/say the Sinner's Prayer and BAM, you're set for life. Which is a result when the viewpoint focuses on escaping hell.

Rather, I see Jesus as inviting everyone into a journey of discovering God. For through discovering God, you will discover your full potential, and who He made you to be. Jesus a special person, yes, but I also think he laid out a path for the rest of us.

Greg said...

I appreciate your kind comments regarding my blog entry.

I find it rather shallow to believe that one is somehow mysteriously granted a place in God’s kingdom (i.e. heaven to conservative Christians) on the basis of asking Jesus into one’s heart, being born again, baptized, confirmed, completing a two year missionary trip when one is 19, marrying someone of the opposite gender, or any other human-mandated religious rite of passage.

And I cannot believe that an angry, vengeful, blood-thirsty God purposefully sent a man named Jesus into the world for the ultimate purpose of being spat upon, beaten, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, and crucified in order to redeem and supposedly depraved human race. Is that REALLY why I am worthy to be in God’s presence? Come on! In mean, does God really require such horror, suffering, and death? I think not!

I have not yet entered divinity school, and I am really just beginning my journey on the academic theological road, so my arguments are not fully developed. But, there are some things about God that I just cannot believe. And believing that God requires suffering and death in order for humans to be right in God’s sight is one of them.

I’m tired of Christianity being hijacked by hypocritical and judgmental theology that places human beings in a hole of depravity, stripped of their God-given human worth and dignity.


Heather said...


**I’m tired of Christianity being hijacked by hypocritical and judgmental theology that places human beings in a hole of depravity, stripped of their God-given human worth and dignity.** I am, too. After all, humans were made in the image and likeness of God, and are a 'little lower than angels.' No, that doesn't make the human race perfect, but surely it makes it better than totally depraved. Otherwise, why did God bother, unless it was to bring out an inherent goodness in us?