Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
From a message delivered on February 13, 2014, in ESR worship:
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
Do you remember that line? It’s from The Smashing Pumpkins song, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” The song came out in 1995, the year I graduated from high school.
It’s a line that had a special resonance with me, because I had actually used that analogy in a conversation years earlier with the then youth pastor at the church in which I grew up. You see, my mother, concerned about some of the questions I was asking, set up a special meeting with the pastor to help address the situation.
The issue I struggled with was how humans were any different from lab rats in the standard narrative of heaven and hell I had grown up hearing. According to that narrative, we had free will, but it didn’t seem like that much of a choice, really. You could choose, on the one hand, to love and obey God your creator. Or, on the other hand, you could choose to reject God and spend eternity burning in a lake of fire. Get a treat or get an electric shock. Take your pick, no pressure! It’s a free country!
So, to be honest, that youth pastor was of no help at all. To him, I was simply missing the point.
That arrangement felt less like a loving relationship to my junior high mind and more like a trap. It reminded me of the kids I knew in school who would threaten to kill themselves if the person they were dating broke up with them. You’re free to decide what to do!
I didn’t want to be in that kind of relationship with a girl, and I definitely didn’t want to be in that kind of relationship with God. But I had no other frame of reference, no other model to work with. I went to Bible club in high school and theology club in college. Neither resolved the questions I had.
It wasn’t really until I started reading George Fox’s Journal and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Sickness unto Death in my undergrad days that I started to have words to describe a different sort of framework.
But the thing was that these characters were helping me break out of the trap I thought I was caught up in. They spent so much less time focusing on a conversion experience directed toward eternal destiny and so much more on trying to think through what it meant to actually live in this life as a follower of Christ.
Years later I was privileged to spend a lot of time processing my thoughts about God and Jesus and salvation during my time as a student at Earlham School of Religion. I got to take classes in Quakerism, I took an independent study on Kierkegaard, and I did my best to sum it all up at the end in my constructive theology class.
I think I left here with a strong sense that we are co-creators with God, and that’s really our primary purpose as humans. To love and build collaboratively alongside one another and in cooperation with God.
And that’s exactly what I tried to do when I left here to work in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Now, I won’t say that work was all for naught, but it definitely didn’t work out the way I had hoped. The nasty implosion of that yearly meeting left me with scars I’m still working on today.
Part of what the experience left me with was a second failure of the church as an institution. First my youth pastor could not speak to my condition and now the yearly meeting of which I was a part and employed by could not live up to my hopes and expectations for it.
Coming across Peter Rollins and Rollins’s eventual visit to ESR were profoundly helpful in this context. Rollins points out that much of what we set up as “truths” about God (as well as the church that supports those truths) are too often little more than idols. What does he mean by that?
Well, I think he means that these “solid truths” are really just concepts that actually stand between us (and possibly shelter us) from an actual experience of God. And he invites into a space of doubt and self-examination to try and separate what our actual experience from what we’ve simply absorbed or assumed. One of the best illustrations of this is actually hanging in my office – it’s his explanation of the meaning of the Temple curtain being ripped open and finding nothing behind it.
In the book discussion group that met to discuss Rollins’s Insurrection and The Idolatry of God we talked about how, for Rollins, God is not a supernatural being in the sky who pulls levers to make good things happen, or confronts us like God confronts Homer Simpson when we skip church on Sunday morning. Rather, God is in the love that we share with one another.
This was an important shift for me – for it helped me once again focus on my practical and personal engagement with others. But there was a seed planted here that took root. Another secret destroyer, as Billy Corgan talks about in the Smashing Pumpkins song, that would not let me hold on to my re-constructed beliefs.
And so it happened. One morning I woke up and there was just nothing there. Not just in the Temple, but anywhere. I should stress that it didn’t feel like a crisis. It just was.
Whatever anxiety I did feel was not the absence of God, but Quaker guilt over violating the testimony of integrity. How could I keep going to worship and listen to fine sermons about God’s wondrous works? How could I continue to work in a seminary, guiding people through the admissions process as their hearts are just opening to a divine impulse to commit themselves to religious study?
I had no idea.
My first response was simply to ignore the disconnect and pretend everything was as it had been before. It wasn’t something I was prepared to talk about with anyone for fear of the reaction.
So, as a good 5 on the Enneagram, I turned again to books. My faithful friends. I found and read, for instance, a collection of essays by non-theist Friends. But that left me feeling conflicted. I didn’t really have any arguments to lodge against their position, but I also didn’t feel like what they were articulating described where I was.
So one day, as I sat in a workshop at a conference for ministry in higher education, the presenter asked us to reflect on the hurdles and obstacles in the way of our walk with God. I decided that I needed to do something about the disconnect, although I didn’t yet know what or where it would lead.
As it happened, I was flying to another conference that evening and had packed a book by John Caputo. I had been hearing buzz about his Insistence of God from Rollins and others, but wasn’t sure what to expect. I guess I had some hope that, as I had hoped with the non-theist Quaker essays earlier, it might be a help in a time of processing.
Boy was it. As I sat on the plane, I couldn’t put it down. Here was an attempt to articulate some mid-point between the poles of atheism and theism that didn’t pit them against each other but invited dialogue instead. He spoke to my condition.
I’m sure I’m oversimplifying and will get some of this wrong, but Caputo’s argument is that in contrast to a “strong theology” of clear doctrines about creation, end times, heaven and hell, beings in the sky and so forth, we instead experience God in a very different way, what he describes as a weak theology of insistence.
The event that we name when we speak of God comes into being when we act on that insistence. It is in responding to this insistence that we say yes to life, yes to love, yes to the other. That is when we experience more life, and that more life is our salvation.
We can thus say that we dependent on God for our salvation, but perhaps not in the way many of us have traditionally understood this. And God, in turn, is dependent on us for this action to take place. Neither of us knows how it will turn out – it could be a disaster. But we are all engaged in the risky but hopeful enterprise.
I share this not in the hopes that I will convert you to Caputo’s way of thinking, but simply in the hope that it might be helpful others as it was for me. As for me, I loved it! What I took away from what I read was that Caputo was taking a step further than Rollins. Where Rollins broke open space for doubt and critical examination of our little gods, Caputo was putting forth an explanation of how to walk forward out of that space and live life with joy and hope and compassion.
That’s what I was missing, and that’s what I needed. But I was still uncertain how I could talk about any of this. The book group that had read the two Rollins books had not met for months, and I took the risk of inviting them into a new conversation. I needed to know if I was alone in my journey and if I was mad to think this was a viable path.
As it turns out, others were in similar places, and we started meeting this winter. It hasn’t always been easy. Caputo is, in many ways, an academic writing for academics. A consistent theme in the book group has been whether or how Caputo would preach.
One of the club members took the plunge first in a sermon at a nearby congregation. He talked about Jesus reading from Isaiah in the Temple and he said that the power of that scene is not that it was play acting, but that Jesus did not know what would happen. Space was made for an event. The text Jesus read from in Isaiah described his purpose better than Jesus had himself. The pastor then challenged us to prepare for open worship as a place where the event might take place.
“The name of God,” says Caputo, “is the name of an insistent call or solicitation that is visited upon the world, and whether God comes to exist depends upon whether we resist or assist this insistence” (14).
It was as I was thinking about all of this that I ended up having a conversation with John Connell about his recent article in Quaker Theology. What John points out is that in the argument over free will between Augustine and election and predestination on the one side and Pelagius and human action alone on the other, early Friends such as Barclay, Fox, and Penn came to the conclusion that these two opposing positions of Augustine and Pelagius were extremes. To counter these extremes, they developed a genuinely distinct third way.
Consider this passage from John’s article:
for Fox, election is the starting position for all at some point unless actively resisted. That all people receive grace unconditionally via the light, and do so by the sovereign will of the Creator and through no action of their own. However response to that light is not compulsory, either by virtue of God’s sovereign decree or the limitations of their depraved nature; but rather is left to the creature whom may choose whether or not to resist it. Thus, culpability for humans is found in a negative or resistive response to grace, as opposed to merit being assigned to the individual for a positive choice to actively exercise belief.
He goes on to say that “Barclay similarly describes the process with added precision:
That to this end God hath given to every man a measure of the light of his own Son–a measure of grace–a measure of the Spirit. Thirdly, That God, in and by this light, invites, calls, exhorts, and strives, with every man, in order to save him: which light received, and not resisted , works the salvation of all; but that it may be resisted , and then it becomes man’s condemnation.
I have no idea what Barclay or Fox or Penn might have thought of Caputo. But as I read this, I can’t help but think there is at least some resonance here between how they describe God’s agency and what Caputo is trying to say about the insistence of God. And, I think this description of God, just as it frees Friends from the Pelagian/Augustinian trap, has the potential to free us from the rat in a cage trap, as well.
And so, I will leave you with what could, perhaps, be a blessing from Caputo:
God is instead located in the chance for grace, in the insistence of a chance for existence, in the grace of a chance for life, for more life, perhaps. Faith thus means faith in more life…in the grace of the moment, of the hour, of the day, of the life-time. We love life not despite but under the very condition of its mortality, of being a transient gift, a lily that lasts but a day. A lily of the field that cares not for itself, that neither sows nor reaps but is adorned with the very glory of God. (237)