Who is God? What is God like?
Many people in secular society, at this point as we are full-throttle into post-modernism, don’t start with either question. While some wonder if there is a god at all, most people believe there is something/someone out there and shop the various god-concepts from the world religions.
So, most people around the world ask the essential question within a religious framework that hands down a certain theological tradition that answers the question. However, that doesn’t mean people don’t ask it. Many do so quite openly, especially if they are outside a faith community. Inside a faith community, many may be open about their theological questions, but many others wrestle with doctrines in secret because they are steeped in a group whose culture does not invite free discovery.
I ask the question in a Christian context. The answer is often assumed, and one who asks it is likely seen as a seeker who lacks faith or knowledge, but if the answer is so assumed, what is it?
I do not have a degree in theology, but have studied it in great depth over many years. I haven’t attended seminary, but almost may as well have. I attended a liberal arts university where everyone was required to take a minor’s worth of courses in the Bible department. So, I have formal training, but what it really did for me is teach me how to study. It taught me how to reason through the material in an academic manner and for many, many years, I was one of those people who held very faithfully to the god-concept I was given through the theological tradition of evangelicalism. The more I secretly questioned one particular doctrine, the more unsatisfied I became with the pat answers we were given.
That doctrine is atonement. Christian Exclusivism was also a problem, but I will get to that later.
We hear it all the time – Jesus died for our sins. But, what does that mean? It seems the answer is always assumed, but that should make it easy to answer. I don’t think most Christians can answer it. Ask the question openly and freely in a Bible study or Sunday School class and the best anyone can do, if they don’t stammer around for several seconds, is to regurgitate the language we’ve heard in church circles over and over that all go back, in some way or another, to substitutionary atonement.
I wrestled with atonement so hard that not being able to read the Bible without it reminding me of substitutionary atonement caused me to hardly read the Bible for nearly seven years. I had decided I did not believe in substitutionary atonement anymore, and that left me with the difficult task of reassessing what the rest of the Bible looked like with that central piece torn down. However, at this point, there was a difference between what I believed and what I believed about Christianity. Christianity ceased to be my faith, but I still believed very much in Jesus as an enlightened teacher and I believed very much in his Kingdom of God message as it applies socially. I became a full-fledged liberal out of a passion for social justice and equality. I have not backed off of that much, but where I had once moved into spiritual pluralism, I have now completely returned to Christian orthodoxy, but hold to it in an inclusive manner instead of an exclusive one – which is what I was taught. That was part of my eventual rejection, right alongside substitutionary atonement.
What brought me back was successfully being reprogrammed. It took a long time and I had to be away from the Bible and church in order for the Holy Spirit to perform the work. It was arduous. I am very analytical, so I did the hard work but I don’t take credit for it. It’s a divine thing because it’s miraculous that I survived the transition. See, when I was young, I had an adolescent faith. It simply was not designed to survive the rigors of adulthood, but my core beliefs were wrapped around this adolescent faith. So, the whole thing needed to be torn down and rebuilt for me to come to an adult faith. While I was away from Christian orthodoxy, the reprogramming slowly took place as I explored eastern spirituality, namely Buddhism, and dabbled with meditation. It’s hard for me – contemplation comes much easier. I gravitated toward the contemplative tradition of Christianity and discovered the teachings of Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan friar. He is the deepest spiritual teacher I have ever encountered in the Christian community and his writings were paramount in my journey into an adult Christian faith.
I had already given up substitutionary atonement, so without that lens in place, I was able to put together a new picture of what the continuum between Old and New Testaments looks like. What I came away with is reflected in other blog posts. Basically, I came to believe in recapitulation atonement theory before I even learned of it. If the evangelical university I attended brought it up in any of my Bible department courses, I never remembered it. I do remember a professor bringing up atonement in a doctrine class and I was perplexed that there would be different ideas about it. My thought at the time was something like “Jesus died for our sins – what more is there to say about it?” I received it as a pretty simple thing and never questioned it – at the time.
Eventually, I started to ask a lot of questions. There was one that simply stuck in my soul and wouldn’t leave. If God is perfect, unconditional, limitless and endless love (1 John 4:16), then why does God “need” Jesus to die in order to forgive us or forgive our sins? This makes God small. I eventually admitted that it also paints a picture of God as bloodthirsty. As I developed that, I realized that what we have is an Old Testament understanding of God maintained under the New Covenant, as we understand it.
The theological/doctrinal tradition I was part of handed me this. It’s largely because it is Biblically Literalistic and wants a continuum throughout scripture. So, it builds the New Testament on the Old Testament; it builds a New Testament systematic theology on that of the Old Covenant and Jesus Christ is simply a component, rather than the foundation. It’s easy to do when you read Pauline language in his letters that looks like blood atonement, but when your are a Biblical Literalist, you tend to interpret the scripture without taking context into account. In the First Century, people were in transition. They weren’t going to simply run a mad dash past Temple sacrifice any more than a toddler is going to wake up tomorrow and be a teenager.
So, there are two portraits in the Bible – the Old Testament angry, bloodthirsty deity who is angry at us and believes in a reward/punishment system based on cause and effect and the New Testament God of perfect, unconditional, limitless and endless love presented to us by Christ.
I don’t need any convincing of which is true. My soul knows and it doesn’t need a theology degree.