Tag Archives: Israel

When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.

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Who is God (Part 2)

Who is God? (Part 2)

Christianity teaches about God and humanity, sin and salvation, religion and ethics.  Each aspect of the message presupposes (or creates) a question to which the teaching is an answer.  And the answer Christianity gives to each question takes form as a story of people’s experience of God and culminates in an invitation to participate in that story.  The story Christianity tells is narrated in the Bible; it is the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church. The church, which is the voice of Christianity in the world, presents this story not as a myth or the product of rational speculation or mystical insight, but as a narration of historical events and experiences. Some will ask whether the story is true. Of course this is a critical question, and I will address it at some point. However in this post I want to focus on how the story identifies God.

The story told in the Old Testament rarely addresses the question “Does God exist?” For this was not a pressing issue in its environment. The existence and activity of the divine dimension of the world was self-evident for nearly everyone. The urgent question was “Which god is God?” or “Who is God?” The story of the Old Testament can be read as a prolonged struggle to answer this question. Throughout the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus God is identified as “the God of Abraham” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or by what God did for past generations. As the story of ancient Israel unfolds the identity of God is deepened and enriched, sometimes in surprising ways, by encompassing more and more history, acts and relationships.

Christianity sees the long story of Israel’s ever-deepening understanding of God’s identity as culminating in the story of Jesus Christ. It does not reject the Old Testament’s identification of God anymore than Moses rejected Abraham’s identification of God or Isaiah or Jeremiah rejected Moses’ identification. But the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together, proved such a surprising turn of events that the entire story had to be reoriented to focus on Jesus. Now God is identified by his relationship to Jesus Christ. When Paul speaks of God he almost always speaks of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:3) or even of “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3). As Paul warns the Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols, he finds it necessary to distinguish the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ from other divine identities: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:5-6).

And we should not leave out the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent, who filled the apostles at Pentecost, guided the early church and continues to sanctify and guide believers today. Hence when Christianity answers the question, “Who is God?” its short reply is “God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This is the Christian name for God. It stands for the entire narrative of God’s actions through Jesus Christ and the Spirit. In the words of the late 4th century church father Gregory Nazianzus, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  Or, to generalize Gregory’s assertion, “When the church talks about God, it means Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” No other religion identifies God in this way; for to identify God in this way is to become a Christian.

What kind of character are we attributing to God by identifying God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” or as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”? And what difference does it make in the way we live and how we relate to God? To be continued…

Note: no contemporary theologian I have read focuses so intently and with more profound insight on the question of divine identity than Robert W. Jenson. See his Systematic Theology, 2 vols (Oxford University Press, 1997). Warning: it’s difficult reading.