Just over a year ago, I raised the question – Walter Brueggemann‘s question, actually – “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” It was a provocative question he raised in Atlanta during one of the original Emergent Village theological conversations. The esteemed Old Testament scholar was raising questions about our neat & tidy ways of trying to sweep God’s messy history under the rug; his concern was that many who profess the loudest to be “Bible-believers” are least familiar with its contents. He was not calling the faithful to abandon the witness of Scripture, contra an Ehrman or Spong; rather, he was suggesting we embrace Holy Writ with all its pain. (And if you read the text, there is pain.)
This original post stirred a lot of thoughtful commentary, as well as some rabid denunciation among some Christian fiction writers (of all folks) – earning me my own TAG at Rebecca Miller’s blog, where as far as I know they’re still praying for my wayward soul. 🙂
Today a thoughtful blog reader named Mark chimed in with a question of his own:
Hey everybody, I know I’m reading this a year after the fact so maybe nobody will see this. But if so, I’ve just got a question or two.
I listened to the Brueggemann talks a couple of years ago. He’s one of my favorite authors/speakers. However, the more I’ve thought about his ‘God as a recovering practitioner of violence’, the more I’ve been disturbed (I guess that was his purpose, so that’s fine). I’m o.k. with being disturbed.
The main thing I’m wanting to ask everybody who was posting here toward the end is do you pray? If so, what do you say to a God who may be capricious, violent, arbitrary, etc.? What do you say, good and bad?
The other comment I have is that I just finished reading N.T. Wright’s NTPG, JVG, and RSG books. Actually, as he says, ‘as a matter of history’ it does seem to be highly likely that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. For me, this means atheism is not a viable option. How does everyone feel about this? Have you read these books?
Also, I ask many of these tough questions that you are asking very regularly but also wonder what moral high ground I can stand on to put God on trial. Is this reasonable?
Thanks for the discussion!
Mark’s is an excellent question that really brings things home: How, and to whom, do we pray (if we pray)? I think that all of us, regardless of what we’ve argued about in the original post, want to say we’re praying to an unambiguously good God. Even Walter B. would probably affirm this. Now, I think that questioning God’s goodness is one of the deepest struggles of faith for many of us, especially in contemporary times – I mean, theodicy is a b!tc#, right?
What many of us simply cannot go back to is what I call the Juggling Trapeze Artist version of God; this is where we juggle all of these conflicting biblical and experiential portraits of God, swinging from one pendulum to the other, desperately trying to make them form one coherent portrait. No – if we’re to be people of the book, we need more honesty and integrity than this – rightly dividing the word of truth, or what have you.
In my experience, most people who have a mature, stable, first-hand relationship with God know instinctively that God is good. This often comes in spite of, not because of, the theology they’re taught in church, on television, or the radio. But if we’ve settled God’s goodness in our hearts, it seems to me that there are several options out there to settle this in our heads:
1.) What Brueggemann and others (notably Jack Miles) seem to be advocating for, at least here: An evolutionary understanding of God. God develops, God grows, God changes. This idea is at the heart of the debate between Greco-Roman Theism and Open (or Process) theology – too much to hash through here. Suffice it to say for these considerations, just because God may have ordered genocide at one point in time (as the text says he did) and prohibits even ethnic judgement at a future time (as Jesus seems to in the later text), one can say that God grows without implying that earlier stages of development were sinful – for God or humanity. To put it another way: Sin, like Covenant, is not a static absolute, but rather a moving target based on increasing spheres of empathy and maturity.
2.) Another angle to come at this would be to posit a changeless God who nonetheless accommodated himself to immature-but-developing cultural mores. This is difficult to apply in actual practice – when in the text God insists that people wipe out women and children, or (perhaps more disturbing) to save virgins for mating…really? But one can do some comparative analysis with nearby cultures and conclude that God is gradually pushing his chosen people out of the nest of violent ethnocentrism by fully entering into & communicating from that world. Hence John Calvin wrote that ‘crude’ images of God are “often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”
3.) A variation on this theme would be to apply the apostle Paul’s “we see in part, we prophesy in part” to the writings of Scripture itself. When looking for traces of God’s presence and speaking in our lives, “we see through a glass darkly” – a glass colored by our history, culture, and indeed prejudices. So the children of Israel and various biblical redactors ‘heard’ God say some atrocious things that God could not have said if we is the Father of Jesus Christ who loves indiscrimately and forgives enemies. One can in this way read Scripture as a conversation – yea, an argument – with itself over which interpretation of God will prevail: a vision of God-as-power that serves the interests of the already-powerful, or God-as-Love who empties himself and serves the lowly? (Brian McLaren develops this Scripture-as-conversation perspective in his A New Kind of Christianity. This view is appealing in that it posits an all-good, changeless God and let’s God off the hook for any of the unsavory stuff we see in the Old Testament – and presumably, the New as well. But then, critics will assert, Where does this stop? Do we simply edit out everything that makes us uncomfortable? Does this make us better than 21st century Marcionites? But proponents of this perspective would be quick to suggest a New Covenant hermenutic, starting with Jesus’ own “Moses said to you _____, but I say to you…”
So there we have it. Either 1.) God changes for God’s sake, 2.) God changes for humanity’s sake, or 3.) God is changeless but humanity is increasingly adept at apprehending a fuller revelation of God’s character. To me any of these visions can be held with integrity, and would result in a good God worthy of trust and worship.
What strikes me, further, is that all of these are valid options, and that all of these are problematic. I think as the Church we ought not micro-manage people’s opinions about these different ways of processing the goodness and character of God; rather, we should be places that can hold all of these images of God in abeyance, as we worship and pray together.
Recommended Reading (covering the gamut of these perspectives):
Anything by Rene Girard
God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology – Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (minibook here)
Saving Paradise: How Christians Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire – Rita Brock & Rebecca Parker