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Non-theistic Christianity: Will it preach?

Posted by Ron George on July 4, 2017

Propers for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (RCL)

The Collect: Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Genesis 22.1-14

Psalm 13

Romans 6.12-23

Matthew 10.40-42

__________

The Sacrifice of Isaac
By Michael Gabler (1997)

For  the sake of argument, imagine this is Sunday, July 2, 2017. We’re gathered for services honoring Jesus and affirming ourselves as a community of his followers, people gathered to explore how to become his disciples – how to take up our cross and truly follow him.

The collect says something true about the nature of our gathering: What we believe about Jesus is based on the Jesus Tradition, not history, as transmitted by believers from the Christian movement’s earliest days. It is appropriate for us to regard Jesus as the chief cornerstone of what the collect calls the Church with a capital “C.” We are a community called out of our everyday lives to follow a way of life that is not self-seeking and materialistic, The Way as taught and manifested by Jesus of Nazareth, our teacher, our guide and, yes, our savior, for he saves us from ourselves.

Figuratively speaking, we do want to become a “holy temple” dedicated to Jesus, not “acceptable” to “Almighty God.” God’s acceptance is not an issue for us, but our acceptance of each other in the name of Jesus is what matters most in the community we hope will emerge in our world, a community of becoming transformed and fulfilled human beings. Jesus is the exemplar of our hope, the cornerstone of our community, the pioneer of self-giving love that will save humanity from itself – its greed and its violence.

The myth of God’s call to Abraham to kill his son in a religious ceremony as a test of his loyalty is reason enough to reject the idea of there being a supernatural God well disposed toward humanity. The happy ending is contrived and bizarre. It’s disturbing – and, yes, we suspect that this tale originated as a story intended to condemn child sacrifice (or human sacrifice), which the Hebrew people believed was common in communities other than theirs; or, perhaps, that it had been a practice in antiquity but was no more, and that this story was a reminder that the god they worshipped, Yahweh, did not approve of it. As theirs became a religion of laws – not a bad thing, by the way, as long as they’re fairly applied – we can discern here the remnant of ancient insight that it’s self-defeating for a community to kill its children in order to appease an unseen deity.

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish existentialist theologian,  goes off on this story as a real faith killer for Abraham. Who wouldn’t feel betrayed by such a cruel trick? Is this really a god we want to deal with? No, and if it’s the only god there is – we can choose simply to leave the idea of god behind. Our community does that as a matter of reasonable skepticism about the supernatural; but in Hebrew tradition, there is a god, Yahweh, and he played this terrible trick on Abraham, who had been promised not just an heir but millions of descendants. Yahweh is probably no more cruel than any number of other gods created by humanity – look no further than Greek story-telling about the gods for evidence of this.

It’s no solution to see this as a foretelling of Jesus’ death on the cross “for our redemption.” “God will provide” seems to be the punchline of the Abraham story – so, why on earth would you want to kill your kids? – but it’s pure eisegesis to import a Christian interpretation here, especially when it preaches out as knowing the mind of God who “knew what he would do someday,” referring to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Psalm 13
By Sasha Reneau

Bottom line: This is a god worthy of rejection – capricious and arbitrary, but that’s just theology. This is a concept of god worthy of rejection no matter how it’s interpreted – “tamed” – by Christian reflection. Rational skepticism concludes there is no god such as this, which is a good thing; and, that if religious tradition retains this as an image of a loving God, then there’s something radically wrong with that tradition.

Another bottom line: This is no way, ever, to treat children. Oh, but that’s not the point, say the true believers. This is a story about faith, Abraham’s faith, faith exercised through obedience to the word of God. Why God would require such a thing of Abraham is a divine mystery; however, it’s in the Bible, so there’s something true about it. Yes, there is: Again, I say, this is no way, ever, to treat children, anybody’s children. Take a walk through this story and imagine, existentially, as though it were true, how terrified the boy Isaac must have been, how betrayed he must have felt – and, yes, how relieved he must have been, when daddy changed his mind about what God had told him. Ah, yes, there’s that ram over there. Let’s do him in, instead. Really?

The existential question posed in the psalm (Psalm 13.1-6) is, How long shall we be perplexed and aggrieved by our enemies? Jesus’ answer to that is: As long as it takes for us to learn to love our enemies and, in the right way, to make them our friends, to make them one with us, to include them in our community of faith. Truly, our trust is in mercy; not God’s mercy, for there is no such thing, but mercy as a quality of life shared among loving people and transmitted to those who would do us harm.

We’re not called to be doormats. Self-defense is legitimate, and we must prevail if we’re to show mercy – to the vanquished enemy. (See post-World War II Japan and Germany for a way this can work at the international level. Yes, the Marshall Plan was an act of love.)

Self-defense is an element of love, because we’re called by Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves. We’re not into self-hate but self-love. There’s no percentage in letting ourselves be extinguished by hateful enemies. Our self-defense, however, must be rational not over the top. The use of force, for us, is first of all about making them stop and then making them submit. Then we are or ought to be benevolent – loving, generous, kind, supportive, helpful. We want our enemies to become our friends, and neighbor-love is the only way that happens.

The key phrase in Romans 6.12-23 is “slaves to righteousness,” an apt metaphor for our being related to each other in the community of faith, the community of love in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

(“Church of the Nazarene” is already taken, but it is an apt name for the Jesus community I propose. “Nazarene” puts Jesus where he belongs – in history, as a man who lived, had an impact upon his world and then was unjustly executed by an oppressive government.)

Madonna and child: Syrian refugees
by Murad Sezer/Reuters

Paul makes the point that he’s speaking in human terms because of our natural limitations. Well, let’s just leave it at that, because the message is clear and meaningful without resorting to theology (“god-talk”). Yes, Paul preaches within that framework, but our hermeneutic calls for refining Christian scripture to distill comprehensible, human values from a theological matrix that is no longer necessary; that, in fact, borders on nonsense in our scientific age.

The point of this passage is that the quality of our lives – personally and communally – is vastly enhanced by becoming loving persons rather than persons beset by prejudice, mistrust, hatefulness, anger and other behaviors traditionally referred to as “deadly sins.” In a metaphorical sense, we are made “holy” by living in love with our world and one another. We set ourselves apart, so to speak, not from the rest of the world but for the focused purpose of being love agents in the world. It may cost us not less than everything – as the Nazarene’s life shows us – but it is the fulfilling of our purpose for living. Traditionally, the way of love has been called “the fullness of life.” It’s not divine and it’s not forever, but it is fulfilling, and that’s the only thing that matters in humanity’s tiny portion of time and space.

Jesus may have believed that he was sent by someone into the world to proclaim the good news, but that’s not coercive our experience of the world. The humanist truth of what Jesus is saying here is that his followers re-present him to the world, and that’s for better or for worse. We understand that Matthew’s gospel is not history but theology told through accumulated traditions about Jesus of Nazareth. Heaven as a reward for righteous followers of Jesus was a big category for the first-century church, but it’s an improbable relic for us. Our reward, here and now, the only reward there is or, frankly, ever has been, is that cup of water offered to a thirsty one, that refreshing little piece of “salvation” transmitted by every act of neighbor-love in Jesus’ name. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be “in Jesus’ name” for it to be meaningful. Jesus did say, after all, that whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9.38-41) – and that goes regardless of the moral and/or ethical impulse of the giver.

Matthew 10.40-42: True living water

Giving, no matter the motive, is always an act of neighbor-love. Giving under duress? Still love. Giving in order to get? Still love. Our point would be that the less transactional it is, the more like love it is in Jesus’ name; and, yes, the less transactional it is, the more like the love of Jesus it is regardless of whether someone does it “in the name of Jesus.”

Maybe that’s something to keep in mind as we practice spiritual formation in Jesus name – letting our love be less and less transactional the more we offer it. Reward? Our reward, we hope one day, will be that non-transactional, self-giving love becomes the way we live our lives without giving it a second thought.

Now, that’s good news!

The world we long for is a world characterized by the implications of neighbor-love – peace and justice for all; peace not only through strength but also through benevolence and compassion. It’s not enough to win, beat our chests  and walk away. We advocate victory coupled with openness that will make our enemies our friends. That’s The Way of Jesus. It goes for our community of faith but also for the world. Belligerence in governmental foreign and domestic policy, even in the name of “national security,” is not The Way we know and trust in the name of Jesus. Belligerence in political discourse – “tweeted” or broadcast – never leads to calm inner peace that surpasses our ability to understand. Fomenting hostility is never The Way.

It is never consistent with neighbor-love to treat the stranger, especially the refugee, automatically as though she were an enemy, to demand an ID, to suspect her of terrorism. It’s contrary to traditional Christianity, and it’s just as wrong for those of us who have de-theologized our faith. Laws that empower the state to distrust the stranger and even our fellow citizens on the basis of how they look or the accents with which they speak are not The Way of Jesus and ought to be opposed by all conscientious Christians whether or not they believe there is a god in heaven.

Our nation – indeed many nations in the world – are moving toward distrust and discrimination, hostility as a norm for political discourse and force as an end itself. How are we called to respond as followers of The Way of Jesus? Are we called to respond? Are we called to resist? If so, to what extent, when and where?

When and how will the Church, traditional and otherwise, stand up and say, without equivocation: “Enough!”

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