Bad God

As I read through various YAR posts the other morning, I was struck with a realization about God. More accurately, a realization about my belief in, and loyalty to God. Here it is:

If God really is a white male hetero-bigot he can shove it for all I care.

That’s right. Not my God. I’ll take damnation over worshiping that crap.

So where does that leave us?

Fortunately that’s not the God I believe in, and so I can move forward with faith in a God that loves creation and all that it is.Does that color my interpretation of scripture? Absolutely. Have you ever met someone free of that particular problem of subjective interpretation? But that said, if I learned tomorrow that God was planning to damn people to hell for having sex with the wrong people, I’d call the whole thing off. That is one petty pathetic God, and not one that deserves any respect. Since when is omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence a good reason for me to like you, or follow your word? So what if you are the one and only true god, if you are a petty, spiteful tyrant.

So the question raised is: Why do you worship your God? Is power a good enough reason? Fear of hell? Allow me one hypothetical: what if God does want you to kill your neighbor for their transgressions? Do you do it, just because God says so? Do you have any morality outside of your belief in God? Should you? Are you loyal to whatever God is, to the best of your understanding, no matter what? Or do you have some limits?

And it’s not good enough to say this is all hypothetical, because all theology is somewhat hypothetical. You believe you are right about God, and I believe different from each of you, so one of us (at least) is dealing in fictions of some sort already. And the actual question itself is not hypothetical in the least:

Does “The Bible” or “Gods Word” over-rule all your ethical and moral understandings, and on what basis?

Comments (36)

  1. TimN

    One of the conceptual frame works that has helped me understand what worship means for me is from David Augsburger’s book Dissident Dischipleship. In it he outlines the closest thing I’ve seen to an Anabaptist model for thinking about this topic.

    He talks about mono-polar, bi-polar and tri-polar spirituality. In brief, mono-polar is looking inward for enlightenment or fulfillment, bi-polar is about god and me, and tri-polar is focused on both self, God and neighbor. My friend Graham does a better job than I could of summarizing these three nicely on his blog:

    Dissident Discipleship and Tri-polar Spirituality (the Introduction)

    Augsburger’s model helped me to articulate my own experience of the sacred in relationship and conversation with the other. Growing up I felt a bit alienated when my most transcendent experiences did not revolve around singing off the wall praise songs with thousands of other teenagers at Mennonite Youth Conventions. Tri-polar spirituality taught me that my experience of God can come through connection with the other, both enemy and friend.

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  2. eric (Post author)

    There’s a sliver of a connection, but I’m not sure it’s exactly what I’m getting at. While Augsburger talks about the different goals, or foci, of spirituality, either inward, inward and towards God, or also towards other people (definitely the old-school Anabaptist approach), I’m assuming the third and asking about loyalty. Even with the three-pronged approach you could land at a theology/ethic that I would consider bigoted. Many Anabaptists have. Or am I missing something there?

    What I’m saying is that I’m more loyal to my neighbor than I am to God. I happen to get behind God because I think she offers some new insight into loving my neighbors. If God were a hate-monger, I’d stick with my neighbors.

    Believing, as I am want to do, that God is not a hate-monger, it’s a bit hypothetical of me – but I think it remains an important question to be honest about.

    (Another related topic might be: I’ve never met a religious person who didn’t think God was on their side.)

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  3. Skylark

    Great question. I wish I could say I had a brilliant answer for it, forged after years of experience, study and reflection.

    Your question is another way of addressing a group of questions we tossed around in one of my college philosophy classes. (But you bring it home a lot better than we did.) Does “right” and “wrong” exist outside of God? Is God the standard for the moral code, or does the moral code exist outside of God, and it is by this moral code that we know God is “good”? If the definition of a monolithic diety is the supremest thing out there, but there is a moral code above God, then is the code more powerful than God? What’s the point of believing in a God that’s not the biggest player? But, if the moral code is measured off of God, then morality is subjective. God could have decided what we think of as “right” is really “wrong” and vice versa. But would we know the difference? Would it matter?

    I’m stuck.

    Oh, by the way, Eric, I’ve met religious people who believed they were not yet “on God’s side.” You know, the “woe is me, I’m so bad, God will never accept me” sort. They tend to either decide to be “bad” and not care or figure out a way to get “on God’s side,” generally through one of the main world religions.

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  4. folknotions

    Eric,

    I am on God’s side; God is not “on” anyone’s side, and it is presumptuous for anyone to believe that God falls in line with what they may believe. What they believe should fall in line with God. A subtle, but significant distinction.

    As we have learned that God values all of us, as we are made in the image of God, I think you can safely stick with your neighbors. Abraham stuck with his neighbors in Sodom. God destroyed the place anyway, but nonetheless Abraham advocated for his neighbors. I think this is to teach us that we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn our neighbors and to do our best to aid them.

    I’ll also say this: too often, God has to pay for the sins of “believers” who preach bigotry, oppression, and injustice. For the fault of imperfect humans, the perfect God should not be blamed. We should strive to reach salvation through Christ and perfection through God; those who fall short through preaching oppression will pass away from the world.

    I would say that 99.9% of Christians in the world do not have true faith and have not achieved salvation. Myself included. But it is a journey and we should never think we got everything figured out; because once we do, God can change the rules.

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  5. eric (Post author)

    Thanks Skylark and Folknotions.

    I should clarify my off-topic parenthetical, lest it become the topic (which it isn’t): I’ve never met a religious person who didn’t think their understanding of God was more-or-less correct. I’m playing off Skylark’s comment in another thread that it would be silly to hold an opinion you think is wrong. (I just enjoy that thought so much). Sure we don’t all claim to have everything figured out, but we at least think we’re on the right track, or we’d get off it.

    On topic though, I think Skylark has the idea, and a very interesting way to frame it. And the same answer as myself (I’m stuck) – though I pushed through to telling God she’s either with me or against me. (ha.)

    Folknotions, we have a similar understanding of God on this one, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question. I think I’m on God’s team advocating lgbtq rights. A lot of people disagree with me. I can’t speak for God, and so have to acknowledge that they could be right. My comment is just: if they are right, then God is a jerk and shouldn’t expect my vote in the next cosmic election (when is the next one anyway?).

    Call it divine disobedience. I cannot obey an unjust God.

    Fortunately – as you point out – I don’t think I have to. Lucky me!

    (Also – Carl gets it.)

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  6. Ben

    Hypothetically, if you believe in an perfect being, how does it work for you to believe that your moral standards are superior to the perfect being’s moral standards?

    This is the one side of the “If this is what God is like then God can shove it.” argument that I’ve never understood. How can a person judge something that they acknowledge to be greater than themselves?

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  7. JUnrau

    Ben, I tend to take it less as a “Shove it because I’m better than perfect” and more as a “If that’s what perfection looks like, I’ll take a whole lotta wrongness.” Sort of the Tom Waits argument.

    And if you happen to think that theology is basically fiction, and perfect beings wouldn’t really care about stuff like that, well that helps in this frame of mind. As I see it if some god wants to change rules willy nilly, demand stupid/hateful things from people and generally behave like she’s in a Discworld novel let her. But then she ain’t perfect, and I’m completely justified in wanting no part of that.

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  8. Skylark

    Well, Eric, I’m glad to be the source of so much enjoyment for you. :-D

    I like what JUnrau said about preferring a whole lot of wrongness to an unappealing perfection. It’s intriguing to ponder if God is the sado-machist (with lightning bolts instead of a bullwhip and handcuffs). It puts a different spin on the familiar problem-of-pain-and-suffering for theists. Except that dilemna seems to focus on there being a “sum total” of pain, as though it can be added together and experienced by one person. (Some would argue Jesus did.)

    And the question “is there a purpose behind God allowing free will, which leads to sin?” Is it really as simple as God wanting to be known as Creator and Redeemer? Sheesh, God’s sounding narcissistic. But a perfect being is allowed, I guess. Which brings us back to the question of if God is the standard or sits under it. Much like “the king (of England) is not above the law” to certain colonists. Or was that Magna Carta era? I don’t remember.

    Does God need anything? If she wants anything that *only* can come from a creation, does that indicate a lack in the divine?

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  9. Debbie

    How many young adults of color are authors on this blog??? Think about it. This should be called YWAR – Young White Anabaptists Radicals.

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  10. Skylark

    Interesting choice of post to leave the comment on, Debbie.

    We have talked about it. Many times. At length. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it again.

    Do you have suggestions for making YAR more ethnically diverse?

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  11. eric (Post author)

    It’s a good conversation to have, but this is not the place for it, unless you would like to tie it in to the conversation at hand somehow. Otherwise, I’ve created a new thread for it.

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  12. Nate Myers

    You know, Eric, the funny thing that you can’t get around if you’re a Christian (which you are, if you are an Anabaptist) is that God has boundaries; and some of those boundaries are clearly defined, even though you don’t want them to be. Tough. Buck up and deal with it, or settle for a self-defined faith (which is no faith at all).

    You call the revealed historical Judeo-Christian God a “hetero-bigot” “planning to damn people to hell for having sex with the wrong people.” Though these sexual boundaries don’t line up with your idea of what is right in the world, you might be glad that this God is also bigoted against alcoholism and murder and grudges and power-mongers and gossip and pridefulness. Is that flavor of bigotry unsavory for you as well?

    I don’t worship “my God.” I worship the living God revealed in history, worshiped by a called-out people (first the Israelites, and second the church) who are called to show the world that they aren’t the primary definers of what their lives consist of; God is. They’ve consistently failed and consistently succeeded in a multitude of ways, they often get their priorities messed up and need to step back and re-engage the process, but thank God God is the primary arbiter of what is healthy and right and not us; or we’d be in a right pickle right now.

    You see, Eric, I don’t want to love others all the time with all my heart and I kind of like to set my own boundaries in life. I wish I could pick and choose Scripture to proof-text my position, but I have too much self-respect and respect for God for that.

    When it comes to interpretation, God made it manifestly clear in Jesus that killing is out of order for his followers. Moving beyond the flat-view of the Bible to Jesus as pinnacle shows that clearly. But Jesus didn’t stand alone…he was a historically rooted Jew who knew that to follow the living God demanded all of one’s life; including boundaries human beings don’t understand/want to do.

    I believe the Bible is authoritative on the matters it speaks to directly, though this is clearly an issue of interpretation case-by-case; and guides us in certain paths of thinking in matters it does not speak to directly. For example, I believe the Bible addresses homosexuality in its very nature as sinful; it’s ridiculous that you would call a Biblical concern for healthy sexuality in all of its forms as just a condemnation of “having sex with the wrong people”; as if God is a whining killjoy looking for some wrathful excitement. The Bible speaks directly to it, and evens tightens restrictions on sexual behavior over the course of time. The Bible does not, however, speak to masturbation, though I think it gives us guides to understanding how it can be healthy/unhealthy if carried out in certain ways/mindsets. This applies to pornography and sexual abuse insofar as guides for healthy behavior as well. Are you glad rape is considered an unhealthy behavior? If so, you’re clearly not being sensitive to (and in fact are oppressing) those who enjoy such activities…

    The only way the Bible can be authoritative (as it rightfully should be) for followers of Jesus is if we quit glossing over the parts we disagree with and choose to really wrestle with what God might have to say on a matter that likely will change the way I live my life; and hopefully I will find in time that that boundary I once thought was restrictive in fact was freeing and restored me to a deeper understanding of what I have been created for. It’s incremental, and clearly hard, but definitely life-giving.

    You have a terribly low, individualized view of God that strips the historical and ethical and spiritual trappings off of our faith and seeks to reinvent God in your image. I know the problem, I wrestle with it all the time; but I also know the problem doesn’t cease to be one when I quit wrestling and settle for glorious me. So that leaves us somewhere, doesn’t it? Somewhere mysterious, somewhere a bit unnerving (especially given our subjective understandings of reality), somewhere terribly hard, yet somewhere (I think) interestingly life-giving over the long haul.

    I’m personally glad you didn’t shape God’s personality, what God considers just and unjust, and I’m equally glad I didn’t. Now we have to hash out what life looks like in submission to this strange God who often asks strange things from us.

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  13. folknotions

    Nate says:
    “You see, Eric, I don’t want to love others all the time with all my heart and I kind of like to set my own boundaries in life. I wish I could pick and choose Scripture to proof-text my position, but I have too much self-respect and respect for God for that.”

    Jesus says:
    A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34)

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  14. Nate Myers

    Sometimes love means talking about hard issues. I’m not sure what you’re insinuating, folknotions, but I think I understand. I tried to keep my comments away from a character attack and on the issue Eric raised, and I think I walked that line ok, but I certainly submit myself to others’ perspectives on my approach.

    Irregardless, I think my point stands, and is in need of a clear response.

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  15. folknotions

    My response had little to with whether or not you like Eric or personally attacked him.

    What it had to do with is the fact that you said you didn’t want to love others all the time and set boundaries in your life; this is in direct conflict with Jesus’s teaching on the subject.

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  16. folknotions

    Also, I should mention that I don’t insinuate anything; I directly say it.

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  17. Nate Myers

    Folknotions,

    Your point was exactly my point in my first comment; I don’t want to love others all the time and set boundaries in my life, but thank God that God holds an expectation that I DO love others and set boundaries in my life.

    Jesus’ expectation for us to love selflessly and sacrificially IS in direct conflict with what I consider to be a basic temptation of human nature, and so it calls us out of self-defined faith and broken relationships to self-LESS love and healthy relationships.

    My comment was a rhetorical point, not a statement of my position.

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  18. eric (Post author)

    Oh. Hi, Nate.

    I wish you would respond to my actual statements rather than gross misinterpretations, misquotes and tangents. You seem to find the same tangent on every post, but never where it’s actually on topic.

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  19. carl

    You call the revealed historical Judeo-Christian God a “hetero-bigot” planning to “damn people to hell for having sex with the wrong people.”

    Of course, he did no such thing, but don’t let that get in the way. Might want to re-read the original post, keeping a careful eye out this time for occurrences of the word “hypothetical.”

    You know, Eric, the funny thing that you can’t get around if you’re a Christian (which you are, if you are an Anabaptist) is that God has boundaries; and some of those boundaries are clearly defined, even though you don’t want them to be. Tough. Buck up and deal with it, or settle for a self-defined faith (which is no faith at all).

    Cool the condescension. Eric’s post had nothing to do with whether God “has boundaries” or whether they’re “clearly defined” or whether anyone “wants them to be.” It has to do with a much more basic question of how willing we are to be honest about the subjectivity of our moral perception and take responsibility for that.

    Nobody here is debating whether moral behavior asks things of us that are difficult. In addition to being off topic, it’s more than a little insulting, because you presume that anyone who disagrees with your particular moral boundaries must therefore be morally lax, self-indulgent, and unwilling to do anything difficult. Believe it or not, I’m not anti-heterosexist because I’m too lazy to be heterosexist. I’m anti-heterosexist because heterosexism is evil.

    You see, Eric, I don’t want to love others all the time with all my heart and I kind of like to set my own boundaries in life.

    You do set your own boundaries in life. The fact that you claim to base them on (your subjective reading of) the Bible (which may be wrong) doesn’t change that a bit. Still your choice.

    Are you glad rape is considered an unhealthy behavior? If so, you’re clearly not being sensitive to (and in fact are oppressing) those who enjoy such activities…

    Wow. Rather than descending into ludicrous (and horribly slanderous to the lgbt people hanging out here at YAR) comparisons, why don’t you head over to the appropriate thread and explain why you apparently believe that consensual, committed homosexual relationships are a pressing moral evil on a par with, among other things, rape. Which you’ve been asked to do, I don’t know, three or four times at least. In the meantime, maybe you could leave some otherwise interesting threads free of this particular foolishness.

    You have a terribly low, individualized view of God that strips the historical and ethical and spiritual trappings off of our faith and seeks to reinvent God in your image.

    Surprise! Here is where I agree with you (in part, minus the derogatory tone). I don’t think Eric is trying to reinvent God in his image. That’s common practice in the church, though usually unacknowledged, and what Eric is doing is far more rare: talking honestly and provocatively about his reaction to God in various conceptions, and wrestling with how we reconcile belief in a transcendent God with the inescapable subjectivity of our and others’ beliefs.

    For my own part, I find the individualized, theoretical framing of this post quickly descends into what seems to me like unproductive philosophical circles. Some people like that kind of thing, I don’t (maybe I’m just not a deep enough thinker).

    Like you say, the Judeo-Christian God is historically specific and historically revealed (albeit incompletely, messily, subjectively, even self-contradictorily) through real struggling human communities, not just a collection of abstract (useless?) theological concepts like “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” “perfect being,” etc. So I find myself less interested in horse-trading the big Latin words, and more interested in digging into the messy specifics of the tradition we’ve been handed, with all its warts and flaws and complexities.

    Which is why I love JUnrau’s response – to me it gets at the core of what I think is valuable in this post. Ultimately, we each have to make a choice of where we stand, and even if there are a lot of people who will tell you that you’re wrong and that God condemns you for it, sometimes all you can say is “if that’s your perfect God, then I’ll take a whole lot of wrongness.” In the end, anything that pops the bubble of moral legalism in favor of deeper commitments to love human beings in all their messiness seems to me to be right in line with Jesus.

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  20. ArchaicFuturist

    Eric’s point seems to me to be not so much an “individualized view of God that strips the historical and ethical and spiritual trappings off of our faith and seeks to reinvent God in your image.” Rather, he raises the question of whether the god he and we believe in is an authoritarian god or a communitarian god.

    In the history of the universe, so far as anyone knows, “authority” is a recent innovation, practiced by only a few groups of people since roughly 10,000 years ago. These groups have become dominant and have brought the rest of the world to its knees, true, but in terms of the various cultures that have inhabited the planet, they are a minority. The vast majority of the world’s human cultures over the past 200,000 years or so have been mostly egalitarian, a fact that any competent anthropologist will attest to. Moreover, in the broader natural world, there has been no incidence of authority or authoritarianism whatsoever. None. Life exists not as a hierarchy, but as a community. It’s not always a pretty community (though it often is), but it is a stunning hodgepodge of different creatures who owe their continued survival to cooperation of one sort or another with other creatures. That’s the way things have been for a couple of billion years now, at least.

    So if we look beyond the Bible (a disparate collection of sometimes wise, pithy, and enlightening but more often confusing, horrific, and barbaric stories and commandments) and beyond the confines of the authoritarian culture we live in, there seems not a shred of evidence that the universe was created and ordered by an authoritarian god. The only god for which there is any evidence whatsoever is the god who lives in community, in the ties of love that bind the human community and the community of life together. This isn’t a god who dictates any commandments whatsoever, but a god who loves and lives with us and grieves with us when we are in pain. This is a god who is very much affected by you and by me, whose very personality is shaped by you and me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have license to do whatever we want. It stands to reason that if our god is a communitarian god, then the things that violate community (murder, war, rape, to name a few concrete examples) distance us from god.

    If I have to choose between the domination systems (Walter Wink’s translation of the Greek that most bibles translate as “world”) and god, then I will choose god. But if I have to choose between god and the living, breathing, loving world, I’ll choose the world every time. Thankfully, I don’t have to make that choice, because the communitarian god is as intimately a part of this world as I am.

    Parenthetically, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy has some enlightening theological insights on this very topic, if you like the young adult fantasy sort of thing.

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  21. carl

    Wow – good stuff, Archaic.

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  22. eric (Post author)

    Carl and Archaic: Amen.

    Carl, thanks for the critique on slipping into abstracts. I suppose that’s a danger of getting reactionary – which in a sense is what this post started out as: A reaction to a certain, narrow and legalistic view of God, and my struggling to deal with it. The two of you have fleshed out a response that makes so much sense, I think I will go to bed.

    And JUnrau – I quite thoroughly enjoyed your Tom Waits quote. Very well put. Pithy, to say the least. I’m going to way over-quote it like I do Skylark.

    For more of the living breathing world (according to Archaic), the messy specifics (according to Carl), and the least of these (according to our favorite ancient Palestinian) – Katie is amazing. I would be long gone.

    Love you all. Thanks for making my day.

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  23. Nate Myers

    Eric, I hardly find one of my points here (on homosexuality, specifically) to be a tangent, given that you (hypothetically speaking, of course) labeled the God you have rejected as a hetero-bigot who condemns people for having sex with the wrong people. I’ll address my main point in responding to Carl’s comment.

    When it comes to the “hypothetical” question, Carl, I’ve read and re-read the post several times and hypothetical doesn’t even come up until the third paragraph (with a specific question) and then the fourth (where Eric states that his post was, in fact, not hypothetical). Eric can correct me if I’m wrong, but he was painting a picture of the God he rejects. So is that painting hypothetical or the real deal, Eric? I’m leaning toward the latter.

    Carl said
    “Eric’s post had nothing to do with whether God “has boundaries” or whether they’re “clearly defined” or whether anyone “wants them to be.” It has to do with a much more basic question of how willing we are to be honest about the subjectivity of our moral perception and take responsibility for that. Nobody here is debating whether moral behavior asks things of us that are difficult.”

    This is where one approach can make all the difference, Carl. Maybe we can all agree that there are some boundaries that God has for our lives, but how we go about deciding which boundaries are ones we think are true or just God’s hypothetical idea is just a bit important, in my view.

    To put it in layman’s terms, it’s the difference between an ice cream shop and my elementary school cafeteria. In the ice cream shop, I have a host of options in front of me that I am completely free to pick and choose to put on my waffle cone. Like those flavors, certain expectations of God may exist before me, but I choose which one I think are good or not, and I build my own understanding (or waffle cone) based on my choices of what morality and the good life really means.

    The other view is that of my elementary school cafeteria. When it came to the entree, we had no choice (how oppressive!), the vegetables were the same deal, but we had some flexibility if we wanted a roll and/or a patty of butter or dessert. In this case, though I do have freedom to choose (carefully) in a certain direction with some things, the major decisions are given (revealed) to me in Scripture whether I like it or not. There are simply some things that I have to knuckle under to; and those things will in fact (maybe many times) subvert my worldview of what is right and wrong and transform my thinking.

    The ice cream shop may be more fun, and may create a world that I’m more comfortable with, but it’s clearly unhealthy. Why? Because it is my subjective opinion that is the center of the process, not the expectations themselves. The flavors are just in front of me without any value judgments placed on them; I am the one who gives them value as I construct my reality as I see fit.

    This relates deeply to the subjective reality of our decision-making piece that Eric and Carl identified. Of course, our decisions on interpretation and boundaries are inescapably subjective, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective reality that judges the whole mess. Sometimes in the Bible that objective reality is incredibly clear, sometimes not. Either way, it exists. So my opinion, while I have to take a stand, is not the end-all, be-all. God is.

    “In addition to being off topic, it’s more than a little insulting, because you presume that anyone who disagrees with your particular moral boundaries must therefore be morally lax, self-indulgent, and unwilling to do anything difficult. Believe it or not, I’m not anti-heterosexist because I’m too lazy to be heterosexist. I’m anti-heterosexist because heterosexism is evil.”

    You’re anti-heterosexist (that’s already a loaded term there) because you think heterosexism is evil. It goes both ways, Carl. It seems that anyone who disagrees with your opinion on this subject must necessarily be “heterosexist” and therefore haven’t enlightened their reality enough to recognize that it is evil. Your standards happen to be different than mine; because they’re deemed “progressive” by some doesn’t make them right.

    Carl said,
    “You do set your own boundaries in life. The fact that you claim to base them on (your subjective reading of) the Bible (which may be wrong) doesn’t change that a bit. Still your choice.”

    Not true. I at the very least am willing to confess that there is a decision-maker on healthy human existence that exists who is more wise than I (God). So my approach, again, while inescapably subjective (because I’m a limited being) is deeply different than myself-as-primary- arbiter-of-what-is-right approach. Much different. Though that doesn’t make me infallible, of course. That’s why I said in my first comment, “I believe the Bible is authoritative on the matters it speaks to directly, though this is clearly an issue of interpretation case-by-case; and guides us in certain paths of thinking in matters it does not speak to directly.” I’m honest enough to admit that the expectations of God have changed over time for His people (enough that Jesus’ approach contradicted some OT expectations), but this reality does not mean we are now free to decide which we think is right or not. Jesus consciously stood in the historical Jewish tradition, and we should too (though we have the NT to augment our understanding).

    As regards the rape comment, I was using it as a rhetorical point (just like I employed the intentionally broad spectrum of “alcoholism and murder and grudges and power-mongers and gossip and pridefulness”) to illustrate that we all have boundaries; some we “naturally” agree with and some that seem “unnatural.” Again, the choice doesn’t begin and end with glorious me. I confess I shouldn’t have used rape as a stand-alone rhetorical point, though I wasn’t surprised that the aghast response of others completely omitted my intentional spectrum of boundaries, abstracted out the more destructive ones, and accused me of placing homosexuality on par with those. I plan on responding to them on the appropriate thread, but I had assumed it was dead and buried…just jumped back there to see that Katie and Eric resurrected it.

    Carl said,
    “I don’t think Eric is trying to reinvent God in his image. That’s common practice in the church, though usually unacknowledged, and what Eric is doing is far more rare: talking honestly and provocatively about his reaction to God in various conceptions, and wrestling with how we reconcile belief in a transcendent God with the inescapable subjectivity of our and others’ beliefs.”

    I agree with you that reinventing God in one’s own image is, regrettably, often a common practice in the church. Doesn’t Anne Lamott say “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do”? But I disagree with you on Eric’s participation in this reinvention. The way I see it, our society demands that we occupy an extreme in the liberal/conservative split and become apologists for the liberal or conservative positions; and many folks do. Eric strikes me as a liberal apologist, rather than a person consciously rooted in the historical community of God’s people, subverting his opinion (without erasing his individuality) to God’s perspective, and willing to err on the side of a Biblical perspective when push comes to shove in certain areas. There it is…that’s what I see in Eric.

    Much of the rest of what you say, Carl, I think is exactly what we are called to engage as Christians, especially the horse-trading Latin terms point. Your statement at the end, though, is troubling.

    “In the end, anything that pops the bubble of moral legalism in favor of deeper commitments to love human beings in all their messiness seems to me to be right in line with Jesus.”

    I disagree. Jesus loved the Father, and because he loved the Father, he loved people. Being God-centered gives us the proper boundaries and understanding with which we can truly love human beings in all their messiness. Jesus wasn’t boundary-less and certainly wasn’t arbitrary in what boundaries he affirmed and eliminated; he often put the tough standard of the pursuit of righteousness right smack dab in front of folks and loved them throughout the process.

    Calling expectations “moral legalism” immediately stacks the deck towards love as defined by tolerance rather than a Biblically rooted definition of love. I think that distinction is huge.

    I’m running out of time before needing to work on schoolword right now, but in response to ArchaicFuturist, I’d say that God is both authoritarian and communitarian. It’s a bit humorous that you make such confident statements about the last 200,000 years of history and follow with this comment about the Bible, “a disparate collection of sometimes wise, pithy, and enlightening but more often confusing, horrific, and barbaric stories and commandments.” It’s pretty obvious to see where you stand on the role of the Bible in your life.

    Sooner or later we have to face the fact that the universal confronted us in the particular and demanded a response, whether it was Abraham in the desert or Jesus in Palestine or a variety of other characters. The universal then expressed His power and authority over the particular in a variety of ways to show the people who’s in charge of history. And the story of that particular is authoritarian as well as communitarian; authoritarian being primary though not stand-alone. If you are a follower of this God, the living God, then you must alter your life as such. If anything else, the egalitarian nature of other aspects of relationships in the world points toward the authoritarian reality of the Bible as unique amongst others and therefore an interesting counter-point.

    Reply
  24. j alan meyer

    Eric and Archaic (among others): You’ve really hit on some good things here. I found your final question, Eric, to be interesting:

    Does “The Bible” or “God’s Word” over-rule all your ethical and moral understandings, and on what basis?

    I would echo what some call the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’, which claims that Scripture is one of four sources of authority, the other three being reason, tradition, and experience. This certainly isn’t a new idea, and I’m sure most of you are familiar with it. So how do you define “God’s Word”, Eric? Because I would say God speaks through my friends and family, my community, my worldview (highly influenced by reason), and obviously my personal experiences. So of course we each define our own god, while often recognizing common sources of authority (or at least influence) for our definition.

    I don’t worship “my God.” I worship the living God revealed in history, worshiped by a called-out people (first the Israelites, and second the church) who are called to show the world that they aren’t the primary definers of what their lives consist of; God is.

    Nate, it’s not a choice between “your god” and “the living God revealed in history” — obviously, you have a different understanding of that living “revealed” God than I do. That makes it your god, not mine. And you ultimately make decisions about what to believe, how to act, etc. You claim to believe in that God, and so do I. But sometimes we don’t agree on what that God looks like.

    Do we base our ethics on our view of God, or vice-versa? Does it matter? After considering Scripture (more than the Bible), reason, my experience, and my tradition, the god I’m left with is necessarily a god that fits with my understanding of the Universe. So God is, in a way, based on my understanding of ethics. And so are my ethics. (Perhaps these are the abstractions Carl was avoiding…)

    But ultimately, beliefs are worthless aside from their influence on ethics. I care about how we live, not what we believe (and theology does have an astounding impact on ethics). So yes, Eric, if God is a bigot then I’m out. And if Jesus comes back with a sword, then it’s not Jesus. Wow — if I think about it that way, I have a lot of power…

    Reply
  25. ST

    Responding to one of the original q’s Eric posed: “Does “The Bible” or “Gods Word” over-rule all your ethical and moral understandings, and on what basis?”

    On numerous issues, especially those concerning patriarchy in all its forms, I make the choice to side with my neighbors instead of the white, male, hetero-bigoted god which the Church promotes. My neighbors in this case (and me) are all or some of the following: poor, colored, queer or gender queer, living in the Global South, women, in various states of “sanity”, and physically differently-abled. I feel a stronger tie to them and their mobilization efforts for justice than to the promotion of a faith and accompanying institution which will demand they self-repress, divide their identities and loyalties and endure suffering for the sake of the preservation of authoritarian orders in order to have eternal, abundant life.

    A response from the most open feminist theologians may be: “Jesus came that we may have life more abundantly now, as well as eternally. People the world over, women, queer and gender queer, poor, in all mental and physical conditions also deserve the abundance life in Christ has to offer.” True, I would respond, there are many examples of Jesus as a societal rule-breaker, but once in a while he still uses demeaning analogies (woman as dog in Luke 7) and utilizes patriarchal family structures for his benefit (Luke 40). Moreso, there are countless passages written by “God’s chosen people” i.e. some Old Testament passages and Pauline texts that blatantly seek to commodify women and contain their potential.

    Some feminist theologians toil over these unequivocally sexist/racist/classist passages trying to vindicate them. I believe the ancient, powerful male writers meant what they said, and don’t want to make room for alternative conceptions of human relationships. As a patriarchal institution, I believe the church in general wishes to continue promoting the patriarchal order as natural and godly. That leaves me as a reader to measure their words and stories with how I understand God and see her moving in the world, ethically and morally.

    So, I split my energy between Anabaptist theological activities and the transnational radical Black Feminist movement. Both Christianity and Feminism are movements which speak to me on the personal and political level, but they are not always reconcilable. The transnational radical Black Feminist movement has no time or space for bigotry or excuses.

    These movements are distinctly different, and there are people on each side that want me to spend all of my time in one (because they can’t tolerate the other one) but for me it doesn’t make sense, I can’t exist healthily within just one paradigm…

    The transnational radical Black Feminist movement is mostly my refuge from those who advocate authoritarianism and exclusion in the name of God and Christianity, but often, in the pressure to gain rights, and do justice, it easily becomes legalistic and doesn’t always seek to show the “deep committments to love human beings in all their messiness” (Carl’s quote) but instead is sooo dedicated to promoting a new paradigm that we override the human complexities as we address the stark situations of the world today.

    There are the times when my neighbors make me really mad…For example I worked with a group who said they worked for economic justice, but in the end were really very greedy and just wanted to improve their personal cash inflow, instead of promoting a holistic analysis…So in order to regain my consciousness, I recoil and think about the complexity of the situation and humanity. When I feel like that, it is my spirituality, and faith community that surrounds and encourages me to continue to work for social justice, welcoming the complexity and loving approaching the process of social change.

    I don’t try to reconcile the two movements, because they don’t wish to be reconciled to one another, but rather situated myself to nurture/be nurtured by both. They both equip me with distinct skills and tactics to “dig into the messy specifics of the tradition we’ve been handed” and “to love human beings” (Carl’s quotes). When I choose to side with my neighbors, though the Church says I am becoming too worldly and taking stance that are against God, I rest in the belief that God is communitarian, and the type that ArchaicFuturist talks about in her comments.

    It has taken me a very long time to be okay with the fact that I identify strongly with two (or more) very different streams of thought and action, and am unsure I will ever resolve how to live fully into these multiple paradigms, because the rigid, bureaucratic world in which I operate continues to seek to smash alternative imaginings of the self and itself.

    Reply
  26. j alan meyer

    (This reply could fit under Is it really a sin? or here. I’m choosing to leave it here.)

    Nate:

    Briefly, I think your response fails to recognize two things.

    Of course, our decisions on interpretation and boundaries are inescapably subjective, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective reality that judges the whole mess. Sometimes in the Bible that objective reality is incredibly clear, sometimes not. Either way, it exists.

    First, you seem to appeal to the Bible (which apparently is sometimes “incredibly clear” to you) as our only way of connecting with or understanding the Divine, and I reject that. In your analysis, where is there room for the Holy Spirit to move (to use one understanding), or for God to speak to people through community or ways other than a set text?

    Second, you fail to recognize that your seemingly clear (at least at times) understanding of God’s expectations has been handed down to us through decades of a hetero-bigoted, sexist, racist tradition. So when there’s a question between love (even the simple love you refer to as tolerance) and following “the major decisions…given (revealed) to [you] in Scripture,” at least recognize that those decisions/expectations were given to you by white racist sexist hetero-bigots (to overuse an interesting term), not by God. You may decide that you agree with them and their interpretation of God’s expectations, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are directly disobeying clearly revealed orders from the Divine. We’re choosing (as you are choosing) to follow a different understanding of God’s expectations, which places love of our neighbors above the expectations of your heterosexist God.

    Reply
  27. michelle

    I haven’t had a chance to read the last four posts other than to quickly skim them, and I’m off to a couple afternoon meetings. However, I feel a strong need to say this:

    Nate,

    I find it fascinating that you can find the time to write incredibly long responses to everyone other than Katie

    or Christy M-R

    or answer Luke’s original questions

    which you have been asked over and over to respond to – namely:

    “What exactly is it about my relationship with my partner that isn’t whole or that’s unhealthy, on God’s terms?”

    I think if you would respond directly to that question with a thoughtful and meaningful answer, and if you would do Katie (and others) the honor of responding to questions that are quite valid, it would help me (at least) be more willing to read the rest of your lengthy theological ideas. Until you do that, I’m coming at whatever else you write without a clear understanding of how in the world you are justifying what I perceive to be quite closed-minded, judgmental and uninformed.

    So enlighten us. Answer the primary question – on the appropriate thread. And maybe even engage someone in discussion who is out and/or female.

    Reply
  28. tomdunn

    Getting back to Eric’s post and some of the replies…

    In my oversimplified view of things, it seems that the root of the problem is that we (Anabaptists, Christians, humanity etc.) are trying to separate something that is inseparable. We are trying to make loving our neighbors and loving our God two different things. As we all know very well, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

    If I were asked to rank these two loves, which is what I read Eric asking, I would tend to follow the order that Jesus gave it in, but as I said earlier, I think this is a package deal. Jesus didn’t really give us the option of loving him and not our neighbors, which is very inconvenient for me/us, but I am thankful for that.

    And on a semi-related note, I have been holding this quote in my back pocket waiting for a good time to pull it out. I think it relates to this post more than anywhere else I could use it.

    “If my spirituality is drawn chiefly from a few passages of my own choosing, I short change myself. If my own needs, and even more, my own view of my own needs determine which portion of Scripture is most gratifying, I slip into a spirituality of personal preference, molding God to my own desires.”

    Robert S. Bilheimer

    Reply
  29. Skylark

    Trying to separate the inseparable… Intriguing food for thought, Tom.

    I wonder, though, who decides what is inseparable? While certainly I would wholeheartedly agree loving God means loving our neighbors, and one without the other isn’t as worthwhile, there’s part of me that likes to deconstruct things and ask, “Who says?” to the assumptions.

    You know, this “bad God” issue is especially annoying when reading in Genesis about Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac because “God said so.” If I were Sarah, I’d be thinking my husband was a lunatic, ’cause God surely says no such thing. If that story is accurately preserved (quite a gamble, given how much time and oral culture has passed since), then it looks like God told Abraham, “You love me that much, eh? Lemme guess: you love me because I’ve always told you to do things you wanted to do anyway. What if I were bad? Would you love me still?” And then, as Abraham prepares to obey, God changes his/her mind and says “Nope, not going to make you do that. Just testing.”

    Quite frankly, that’s repulsive. I believe in doing hard things for God, things I never wanted to do before… but they shouldn’t be bad things. If the story was changed over time, what reason did the Jews have for including it? Did they WANT to believe in a sado-machistic God? Since they believed God had sent them into exile for disobedience, I could see wanting to make sense out of that. The Abraham story doesn’t directly relate to exile, though. Could be they had other “hard things” they felt compelled to do for God and needed a story to bring more legitimacy to the struggle. (Please note, I’m not suggesting any of these things out of a sense of relativism or indifference. It’s just not intellectually defensible for me anymore to cling to Bible passages as “the only way it could have happened, the end” especially OT stories. People have reasons for what they do, which can say a lot about what God was doing in their lives.)

    Oh, and Nate? You can add me to the list of people who is waiting to hear you elaborate on earlier statements about lbgtq relationships.

    Reply
  30. folknotions

    Skylark,

    In response to Eric’s post I took some time to re-read the stories in Genesis; as there are many stories of the destructive nature of God.

    I think you might be right-on by understanding it, first of all, as a story, which reveals to us something important to those tribes in the desert. And I asked myself the same question: “why include something like this?” Of course, we will never know the exact motivation; though, as you note, stories are created to explain things we can’t explain.

    Maybe we read too much into this episode; the story pretty much ends “So Abraham called that place [where he almost sacrificed Issac] ‘the LORD will provide'; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided’. ” (B’reeshet 22:14)

    Maybe it’s a really suspenseful story about how that mountain near Jerusalem got it’s name?

    Reply
  31. Skylark

    >>Maybe it’s a really suspenseful story about how that mountain near Jerusalem got it’s name?<<

    *gasps with glee* I love it! Showing God’s sense of humor!

    (If God is staid, stoic, and humorless, “he can shove it for all I care.”)

    Reply
  32. ArchaicFuturist

    I know it’s dangerous to play with analogies when the analogy is a false one to begin with, but this one is frankly far too tempting:

    So you’ve got your ice cream parlor with its thirty-something flavors, and you’ve got your grade-school cafeteria with its mess of USDA grade-L ground beef slop, overcooked tinned commodity green beans, and something white, gloppy, and unidentifiable that could be tapioca. Maybe. Except that’s not how it’s done anymore. School cafeterias are being leased out to franchises like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. Even where that isn’t happening, Pepsi and Coke have their respective lunchroom monopolies hawking their various flavors on carbonated sugar syrup. But that’s tangential.

    In both your ice cream shop and your cafeteria, you’ve effectively abdicated any choice the moment you walk through the door. You’ve agreed to submit to authoritarianism — the only difference is that in the one case authority provides you with a bunch of choices of essentially the same thing, and in the other you have no choice at all. You’re not ever choosing between freedom to choose what’s bad for you and submitting to what’s good for you … you’re just always submitting to something that’s bad for you.

    So, in good North American Mennonite tradition, I’m choosing instead to host a potluck. I’ll bring a dish made from ingredients grown in my garden. And maybe a bottle of hard cider I made and bottled last fall (though that’s not very Mennonite of me, I suppose). I can’t promise to like what you bring, but I’ll at least try it. With any luck, we’ll all go home satisfied. And it’ll be a lot more fun than sitting in either some stupid old cafeteria or a too-shiny ice cream shop.

    Reply
  33. j alan meyer

    Ha! I love it! I’m there…

    Reply
  34. lukelm

    Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was a good story to bring up. I just got back from a (very nice) trip involving a transatlantic flight, and on the way over I saw the movie Pan’s Labyrinth. *spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraphy, in case you haven’t seen it* The end of the movie is a scene that is a kind of reversal of that story – a girl is asked by a god-like figure to sacrifice her baby brother in order to achieve eternal life, and she chooses to defy him, and so loses her life… but it turns out that the real test was whether she would give away her right to eternal life rather than commit this violence. Who is this God of the Bible who demanded (demands?) violence?

    A little while ago I also bought and leafed through a recent book called “Atheist Manifesto.” I actually didn’t find it to be all that great – it was mostly polemics – but one idea I loved and that rang true to me: in positing God as the super-being, possessing all attributes of the perfect Man which a human could never achieve; and by positing heaven as the super-earth, containing none of the imperfections of earth – we by necessity degrade real humans, and the real earth. A belief in this super-human God and this heaven create an implicit violence against real humans as they are and the real earth as it is.

    I remember a phase during college when I realized with a lot of shock and sadness that the God of the Bible as I had always experienced him (the righteous, angry God – I secretly thought of him as the “fire-breathing God”) was a being who had proven to be false, and had separated from the deeper truths that I tested him against: love and joy and all that. A trusted mentor at the time told me quite simply, “yes, Luke, it’s time to put that God out to pasture.” All my real experiences of spirit and glimmers of my own connection to the infinite & divine, throughout my life, were all wrapped up in my view of this super-human being. But I did it – I put him out to pasture – and I survived it. And, of course, all the truth and reality of God were never affected in any way by doing away with that earlier stuff that had been wrapped up with it. What is true can’t fall away, and what is false must fall away, in time.

    Jesus told a lot of people that the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God is here and is now. I suppose that if I hold any “radical” views, it would be in the radical extent to which I believe this.

    Reply
  35. eric (Post author)

    It’s really the “if” in my second paragraph that you want to look at. The concept that God might disagree with you or be different from what you think is not hypothetical. The concept that God is a hetero-bigot is. I certainly don’t believe it.

    Carl was right-on in interpreting my intent, and in adjusting it slightly. Thanks Carl.

    “Liberal apologetics” is a silly and useless term because it means exactly whatever you want it to mean. I am not doing apologetics of any sort, I’m doing one form of biblical interpretation and theology. The only people keeping the “liberal vs. conservative” terminology alive are those who would shove each other into those boxes in order to shut them down or write them off.

    Tom, I have a hard time believing that anyone out there draws their spirituality from anything other than passages of their own choosing. I think admitting that is more honest and more respectful of a God that may well disagree with you. Rather, it is modeling God in our own image to claim that we had no part in the matter and were able to read with complete objectivity exactly what God wants.

    Wow, there’s a lot of good thought on this thread, from potlucks to nomenclature mythology (is there another word for that?). Thanks all.

    Reply
  36. TimN

    I was reminded of this post today when reading this excellent reflection on Kurt Vonnegut by Kent Davis Sensenig. I got to the end and the author’s note said:

    Through the grace of his peace-loving tradition, family, and creation itself he believes in the God of Jesus Christ. He reports, however, that if the violent one turns out to be the real deal, he would sooner go to hell than worship him.

    Reply

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