Wrestling with the God of Love
Parishioners raised to fear God often have trouble accepting grace. This writer says progressive clergy could do more to help them.
By Teresa Blythe
Not long ago the pastor at the church where I work gave a children’s sermon in which he asked the kids to gather around the lighted candle at the communion table facing away from the light. He described the light as the light of Christ that is always aflame in the world. He said God invites us to turn toward the light so we will benefit from Christ’s light. Many people, he says, stay turned away from the light. But the light is always there. They just don’t see it. Our job as Christians, he said, is to invite people to turn toward the light.
This beautiful illustration stayed with me. Could God’s love in Christ really be like that? Intellectually I answer, “yes,” because I spent four years in seminary and I know that the covenant God made with Noah covers all of creation—not just one nation or one set of believers. That believing God loves and saves everyone is biblically sound.
But something was missing. I could tell that my pastor believed, in his bones, in the salvation of all. I’m still struggling. And I’m not alone.
I know because I led a prayer group at the same church, where several people expressed a very different view of God’s judgment. They believed in what theologian Jan Bonda would describe as “the dual purpose of God—the salvation of some and the damnation of many”—a belief that Bonda refutes in his book The One Purpose of God. Many of these prayer group members worried about hell—not the metaphorical, “hell on earth” kind of hell, but the literal reading of Revelation in which Lake of Fire awaits those doomed to eternal damnation (as the literal reading goes). They essentially believed in a violent God.
How is it, I wondered, that this pastor—and so many others that I know—can be so certain of the one purpose of God being the salvation of all creation while many who listen to him preach week after week just don’t get it at all? The reason is that many have done a good job preaching God’s steadfast and unfailing love, but have neglected to show us how they came to the important belief that one day all people will be made whole. I call it the “Gap that Dares Not Speak its Name.” Christians tend to understand only the covenant God makes in Christ, forgetting the undeniable ones God made previously with the people of Israel and with all of creation. Therein lies a big Covenant Gap.
Certainly not all Christian clergy are gung-ho about the covenant God made with Noah (to never again destroy creation), nor do they understand it as promoting salvation for all. A great number fall into the “I leave the determination of who is saved up to God.” I call them closet universalists—clergy who want to believe in the salvation of all but are afraid if they proclaim it something bad (not the wrath of God but certainly the wrath of conservative Christians) will befall them. Those pastors cannot help the befuddled. They have turned a blind eye.
What I’m referring to is the gap between a clear understanding from the pulpit of the salvation of all creation and the cultural understanding (or misunderstanding) of the authority of the scriptures. In other words, progressive preachers proclaim the universal and unconditional love of a non-violent God and we sit there in the pews remembering biblical edicts about sheep and goats, eternal flames and a scary, exclusive “Lamb’s Book of Life.” Not all of us, mind you. But a lot more than you might figure. Being embarrassed to admit that we don’t have the same confidence in the unconditional love of God, we remain silent. We read the Bible, especially the frightening New Testament passages about hell, and we can only hope they’re metaphors describing the experience of alienation from God here and now, and not literal descriptions of an eternal place where, as Jesus says in Matthew 25:31, “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
What I am asking progressive pastors and theologians to do is show the average Christian how you got there. Help us bridge this gap of understanding. If you grew into this belief about a covenant from God that includes all of us, what was your process? If you always had the belief, tell us how you reconciled this belief with the violent scriptures that frighten us so.
The thing is, many of us were brought up in churches that either adhered to a biblical inerrancy doctrine of scripture (which perplexed us mightily), or ones that cherry-picked which scriptures we were supposed to believe literally. While we may have chosen progressive churches because they rejected that view of scripture as unworkable and uninformed, we still hold, deep in our bones, the fears we grew up with. Fears that God is violent and hell is real, everlasting and full of nonbelievers.
This gap must be addressed openly and repeatedly. It takes the kind of guts Marcus Borg had to write an entire book about his process in The God We Never Knew, which was brilliant. Philip Gulley and James Mulholland needed two books to explain their process--If Grace Is True and their newest If God Is Love. Again, just what the gap needed. But perplexed people need more than books, we need conversation. And we need it from those we know best. People we admire and trust. We need it reflected on in sermons, essays, articles and workshops—personal encounters that share with us the stories of faith development. How does prayer and meditation fit into this theology? What do the mystics of history have to say about God’s unconditional love? We need to pray and talk about it in spirituality groups where we can reflect on our beliefs, our doubts and our concerns. We need it taught in adult education; pored over in Bible study; proclaimed in song.
Some of us are stuck in the gap. In a sense, we believe. Now we need someone to help our unbelief.
Teresa Blythe is a spiritual director and writer living in Tucson, Ariz. She has co-authored Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television through the Lens of Faith and Meeting God in Virtual Reality: Using Spiritual Practices with Media. Her next book, "50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times," will be published by Abingdon Press next spring.
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