Saturday, August 8, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 5

Theology should be about more than just the history of ideas about God. It should be about God. Think about that. This means, among other things, that it should be about God's engagement with the world. Which means, in turn, that theology should not be limited to the library or the minister's study, but should be primarily done in relation to the conditions of the world. The question, therefore, is how would you do that? And what would be your criteria for judgment? How would you know it was God?

For a good part of Western Christianity, questions about God began, not with God's engagement with the world, but with Greek notions of what God must be to be God. God was above history, established in a set of attributes that pertained only to God (omnipresent, omnipotent, etc).

Defining God apart from history, or God's actual engagement with the world, has certain advantages. The biggest of these is that it is really difficult to narrate a series of events that indicates God's continuing presence. God is tough to track in history. Israel found this out in relation to the exile. The long dislocation of Israel from the promise of land, king, and temple made it difficult to narrate a continuous story of God's steadfast love. Did God keep his promises? Had he forgotten Israel? Was Yahweh big enough to deliver on his promises?

Israel's theologians responded in at least two ways. One was to locate God, at least in part, in wisdom traditions (ontology?) that had little or no connection to the specific stories of Israel's past. Another, however, dislocated Israel's hope from a golden past working itself out in the present, and located it in the future (eschatology). Hope was still connected to actual social conditions, e.g. peace, joy, righteousness, but was now out in front of immediate history as a series of sequential events.

Jesus' announcement of the gospel of the Kingdom brings the question of God into the actual conditions of history. The Kingdom of God is about actual social circumstances. Sharing possessions, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, lifting up the lowly. The question of God is a question related to history. Like Israel's prophets, however, the Kingdom of God for Jesus is a future reality. It is not the steady progression of a series of events from the past to the future (teleological). The Kingdom is the reality of the future breaking into the present (eschatological). Its precedent in the present is not the immediate past, but the future. God's primary relationship with the world is not above, uninvolved, but in front of the world, actively engaged.

OK, this may seem like a set of fine distinctions, deep theory that only some theologians talk about. But this is very practical, because it points to how we might meaningfully talk about God in the conditions of life, which is turn related to our concept of gospel. If God's involvement with the world is not strictly chronological from past to present--one event leading to the next, leading to the next--then it may often be experienced as surprise, disruption, disorientation--or news. Part of staying in the mode of gospel is openness to surprise. A lot of implications here. But for now let's say that the category of surprise allows us to speak of God meaningfully in the conditions of human experience without it being a story of continuous progress.


Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

"Surprise" we talk about that quite a bit in spiritual formation and spiritual direction. I like the phrase "the God of surprises."

Unknown said...

A kingdom that is primarily about social circumstances and not about doctrinal purity is a kingdom worth pursuing. A God "in front of the world, actively engaged" is good news. Even compeling news. These may seem like fine distinctions, but as I think about my daughter and her frustrations with religions and the religious, I wonder how a church with this view of God's involvment in the world might be perceived by her and so many other "UNchristians."