We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

Saturday, June 18, 2022

I Can Still Be A Christian: From Deconstruction to Rediscovery



I Can Still Be A Christian: From Deconstruction to Rediscovery

April 8, 2022

If you’ve kept up with trends in Christianity for the past few years, you’ve seen one word pop up pretty often: deconstruction. Both the religious-political fallout of the Trump presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic led many evangelicals to re-evaluate their faith — for better or for worse. What it means: The tenets of the Christian faith you grew up believing are being challenged, either by science, philosophy, politics, or other external realities, and you are in the process of examining those tenets to see how they hold up to the evidence. Many of them fall apart — hence the “deconstruction” of your faith.

For many, this boils down to a simple change of opinion on a few topics, primarily political or social — rarely biblical in nature — and the central tenets of historic Christianity are left intact. That’s not deconstruction to me; it’s simply changing your mind.

For some, deconstruction is more of a transition of beliefs, either doctrinal or practical — think, a Baptist becomes an Anglican, a Catholic goes non-denominational, or any other scenario. It has changed, sometimes pretty significantly, but orthodoxy is untouched.

Still, for others, the comfort of orthodox Christianity is abandoned in favor of beliefs that many would regard as heretical — though the “h-word” is more often than not thrown around too liberally and usually baselessly.

After going through deconstruction, some formerly devout Christians even opt for various forms of atheism and agnosticism; some have even adopted beliefs that are more in line with Buddhism or other eastern religions.

Regardless, it’s rare that a Christian goes through deconstruction and ends up back at the starting point.

My Deconstruction: The First Stone

I didn’t know it until I heard the term a couple of years ago, but I’ve been deconstructing my faith for a while — more like demolishing, really.

It all started on a Monday evening at Huntsville Bible College back in 2010. We had to attend an eschatology conference as part of the requirements for a course on the Book of Daniel. The course was taught by an Assembly of God professor, so the content was from a dispensationalist perspective.

Being a Southern Baptist kid who was theologically weaned on Left Behind, you can imagine my shock when the speaker, the late Rev. Dr. Wayne P. Snodgrass (an amillennial Baptist), uttered these words: “I don’t deal with the rapture because the Bible doesn’t deal with the rapture.” I didn’t realize it then, but …

that’s when the first rock fell.

A Stonemason

I’m a stonemason. I have been for my entire life. My dad was one (the best in the South), and I’ve worked with him since I was 14 — and professionally for 10 years before becoming a teacher (and on the side now even though he is technically retired). I am very familiar with this idea of “deconstructing.”

A structure is not what it used to be; perhaps it was damaged by an external factor or had settled over the years — meaning it was outdated and could no longer function as it once did — so it needed to be taken down.

My dad, brothers, and I would handle stuff like this all the time: An old fence built by slaves or Irishmen in the 18th or 19th century was falling apart, so we were called in to repair it or repurpose the stones; an old chimney stood tall with the shell of the burned house collapsing around it, so we were asked to come in and take down the chimney to preserve the stones.

I can’t even guess how many days of my life have been spent reconstructing old fences like this. In fact, when I saw this image on Shutterstock, I genuinely thought for a moment that it was a job I had worked on.

When we take apart these old stone structures, a few things happen:

  • First, we assess the structure to see how we should approach it so the process (1) is safe and (2) will preserve the most stones.
  • Second, we examine each individual stone as we remove it to see if it goes in the “keep” pile or “discard” pile — all structures have at least some keepers, and some keepers are so good that they get their own pile.
  • Third, we move the pile of keepers to a new spot and prepare for the reconstruction phase — or storage phase, depending on the owner’s needs.

Sometimes, stones in the middle fall out, and the structure is wobbling like a Jenga tower. Just a little pressure will cause it to collapse, so it is often best to safely push the whole thing down and sift through the pile of rocks on the ground.

Back to the Conference

That’s what happened to me at the eschatology conference back in 2010. My rapture stone was knocked out of the structure of my faith, which I thought was a strong tower; alas, it was a brittle post.

The problem: That stone was smack-dab in the middle, and my structure was now rocked (pun unintended), swaying back and forth and waiting for the next rock to fall out before, eventually, collapsing.

I pulled a Dante; I got on my ship and set sail on a journey for truth — though my goal was to find “truth” that fit my beliefs and proved Dr. Snodgrass wrong, so it was really more of a journey for vengeance. I searched far and wide for proof he was wrong. I examined the stone to see if it really was what I thought it was.

Well, as my stone structure was a brittle post, my ship was a plywood raft with a torn table cloth as the sail. I set sail into territories my childhood faith had me ill-prepared to encounter.

What did I learn?

  • First, the rapture isn’t accepted by all or even the majority of Christians (that surprised me — I really thought it was the only option).
  • Furthermore, the rapture was invented by a dude (John Nelson Darby) in the mid-late 1800s; I was never told that in church growing up, and Tim LaHaye never brought it up.
  • Finally, I learned that the rapture isn’t even in the Bible. Talk about rocked! (pun intended that time)

Discovering on my journey that there are dozens of passages in the New Testament in which Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John believed the so-called “second coming” would occur within the lifetimes of many living in the first century AD really rattled my orthodoxy.

My church leaders conveniently skipped over those passages — while skipping over Josephus and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which was a pretty significant event — or reinterpreted them to fit their belief system.

Then studying the symbolism and imagery of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, as well as the symbolism of the Temple, the New Heaven and New Earth, and my reinterpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, forced me to re-examine what would really transpire at “the end.”

I grew up believing that something like this was going
to happen to Earth — and probably in my lifetime.


My conclusions now are completely different from what I was raised to believe. In a nutshell, I believe the New Testament teaches — and history reflects — a completion of the prophetic clock in the Bible: We are in the Kingdom of Christ; the Savior has come and has indwelled his people. This is it, and that’s fine — we are still a Kingdom that should strive to make the world a better place that is more aligned with the core truth of the Gospel. Even if God does have a plan for the future (I don’t really think he does, but I digress), we don’t need to worry about it and would probably be better off if we acted like there is nothing on the prophetic horizon — it gives us more ownership and responsibility for the world’s problems.

As I said, I don’t believe how I was raised to believe, but even if I had come to the same conclusions, on my own, I still would have been pissed. Why would they hide such a treasure trove of theology from me? Were they scared?

I then thought, “What else did my church leaders hide from me? What else about my faith is wrong, or at least incomplete?”

Starting Over

That’s where René Descartes comes in. He said in A Discourse on the Method, and I paraphrase, to never accept anything that was not introduced there by reason. I realized that I didn’t really believe anything I thought I believed; I simply accepted what I had been taught and didn’t question it. I never gave any of the ideas and doctrines time to say I believed them. I simply signed the dotted line on the statement of faith and moved on with my faith.

Descartes also said to erase everything you have been taught so you can examine everything, individually, without the distraction of assumptions. That’s hard to do. But as Isaac Asimov said,

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

I started scrubbing and declared to myself, “You know what? I got a little time — I got my whole life to figure this out. I’m gonna push the whole thing down and see what survives.”

It was a mess at the beginning — rocks everywhere! But I had a hammer and chisel and a little experience, so I started chipping away one at a time. It’s hard to describe just how many stones are in a structure, and they all play an important role, but some are more important than others …

Filler Stones

Growing up in the buckle of the Bible belt meant that everyone around me was a Christian. In Lynchburg, where I grew up and still live, people typically are either Baptist or church of Christ. We even have some who are called Baptist Church of Christ since they can’t make up their minds (actually, they are unrelated to the restoration movement and are their own thing, but that’s irrelevant to this specific post).

Beyond Baptist and church of Christ folk, there ain’t much. We have some Methodists, of course, but I didn’t know a Presbyterian church was in Lynchburg until I was in my late 20s, and the only Pentecostal church nearby is about a quarter mile into Lincoln County (instead of Moore, where Lynchburg is). I’m assuming they set up shop there so people wouldn’t think they were just drunk on the local product (Jack Daniel’s). Not really. They are great people — just hyper.

Anyway, living here meant that Christian faith was a part of every day life, not just a Sunday gathering. In high school, my friends were either lukewarm Baptists or church of Christ zealots. I remember riding on the school bus to and from baseball games; we would pass the time by having theological debates. I, a Baptist at the time, would argue with my church of Christ teammates about issues like whether music should be used in church, if communion should be weekly, or if one must be baptized to be saved.

One thing I concede now (but wouldn’t even consider admitting then) is that they were far more prepared to defend their beliefs than I was. I held my own because I always find a way, even if I’m knowingly BS’ing. But it’s like their “elders,” as they called them (we even argued the terminology of pastor vs. elder), would hold a weekly class dedicated to debating Baptists — or at least knowing church of Christ doctrine inside and out. It made sense because most of them believed they were the only ones who had the truth and a one-way ticket to Heaven. I don’t think (I hope not) many believe that way anymore.

Those issues are now trivial to me. So when I knocked down my structure, those stones were placed in the “deal with later” pile. Sure, they are important (all doctrine is), but they didn’t seem as important to me when I decided to grab a hammer and chisel and really get my hands dirty with this deconstruction thing. They almost seemed irrelevant altogether, like the filler stones we use when we are building something — little stones used to fill in gaps. They have to be there, but they don’t seem as important as the ones out front for all to see, or those on the foundation.

I have ideas and thoughts about these doctrines now, but I wouldn’t have these ideas without spending more time with the other, more important stones. Other stones in this pile include things like women in ministry (I’m all for it, for the record), drinking alcohol (yes, that’s an issue even in whiskey country), Calvinism vs. Arminianism (I think both are annoying), and other issues commonly debated in the church today — to no avail.

The Second Stone

The second stone that really challenged me — on the same level, if not higher, than the eschatology stone — was the origins stone. It seemed natural and appropriate: I examined the end; now I must examine the beginning.

Just as Left Behind shaped my eschatology, Henry Morris and creation “science” shaped my view of origins. The idea that God created the world in six literal days was not something I thought was even debated in Christianity — in the academy, the Church, or anywhere else.

The only ones who disputed that truth were the atheistic evolutionists. Evolution was simply a tool of Satan and a conspiracy by atheist scientists to discredit God. That isn’t what I believed; that was reality — there wasn’t a chance to disbelieve it. The same goes for Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, etc. I was taught that to deny these ideas was to deny God.

I didn’t question these ideas until I really read into them.

Promises

There used to be a Christian bookstore in Lynchburg that was owned by some friends of mine (and people I went to church with for several years). It was called Promises. I would go in often as I was a single guy then; I was probably 18 or 19 and was starting to accept the “calling” to ministry.

I would check out all the study Bibles (and buy some). I would check out some of the theology books. Mostly, I would take a “Moses” staff they were selling and pretend to be Gandalf. “You shall not pass! … unless you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior” is probably something I would have said at that point in my life.

Like most bookstores, especially Christian ones, Promises went out of business. I left that store for the last time with some goodies: the Gandalf staff (I figured it was fate, and it still sits in my classroom, ready to be used to tell students that “they shall not pass”) and three study Bibles — the NKJV Chronological Study Bible, the NIV Archaeological Study Bible, and, most notably, the New Defender’s Study Bible by Henry Morris. I started digging …

After thoroughly studying Henry Morris’ study Bible, especially its essays, I thought, “What the heck is this crap? Why does my church believe this?” I discovered that young earth creationism (the viewpoint I thought was known as simply “biblical”) is very weak. Here is Henry Morris, the Father of Young Earth Creationism, and he is forcing everything he needs to support his belief.

I can’t remember the details, and I’ve since given the Bible away (on accident — I wish I still had it), but I remember sitting on my bed late at night, reading his essays, and thinking that Morris had a very desperate tone. He didn’t come to conclusions, either biblical or scientific, because the evidence took him there; he came to conclusions because he had to.

This part of the Bible causes a lot of problems for Christians, especially
if they get involved, in any way, with the science vs. religion debate


I decided to ignore origins for a while as I was about to begin Bible college. So this stone, although loosened a bit, was still in some way intact for a while — I hadn’t thoroughly examined it yet.

Fast forward a few years … after my rapture stone was knocked out of place and I decided to examine everything …

I eventually came back to origins. I first dipped my toes in science. I had never given evolution the time of day. We were told to ignore our science teacher, and some of us even rebelled by answering incorrectly (on purpose) any question that had anything to do with the Big Bang or evolution. But when I was older and had no pressure to ignore it, I was able to examine it without fear of it conflicting with my faith.

What I found shocked me: The “science” I was taught in church did not match the science taught by … well, actual scientists. And these scientists weren’t only atheists and anti-Christians as I had been taught; many were Christians who believed in a creator God. And they followed evidence instead of fabricating it. I knew that, once again, my childhood leaders led me astray in an important doctrine, and I had to go back to the biblical text to see what went wrong.

At this point, I was aided by scholars like Leland Ryken and John H. Walton, among others. Ryken opened up the world of biblical literature to me. I was a literature guy: I studied Tolkien, Middle English literature, poetry, and science fiction. Literature was (and is) basically “my thing.”

However, I approached the Bible with the assumption that it was written in a vacuum — that it was written by God himself and unlike anything else ever written. These guys helped me see that it was not; it is literature — ancient literature, even if it is inspired by God. And this ancient literature contains literary devices and styles that are not used anymore.

Therefore, I (and apparently my church leaders) missed them. We interpreted Genesis 1 (and 1–11) literally because (1) we, like I said, assumed that the Bible was written in a vacuum, and (2) we didn’t know what type of literature was actually present in the opening chapters of Genesis.

Following rabbit trails helped me discover the literature of Genesis. One of the first literary topics I discovered (from Walton’s Lost World series especially) is also something completely avoided by most evangelical churches: ancient near eastern literature.

You’ll never hear those words in a Southern Baptist church.

Why?

It scares them

There are too many similarities between ancient near eastern literature and biblical literature, and the dates and geographic locations also make them too connected for comfort. They wrote about their gods in similar ways, and they used many of the same literary styles.

I started to realize that the Bible is not a book of science. The Bible’s science does not match reality. But with the assumption that God wrote the Bible still deeply embedded in my emotions (albeit not in my intellect), that was a problem.

I knew that young earth creationism was bogus; I knew that I really couldn’t even fit modern science into the Bible without some extreme gymnastics, as performed by men like Hugh Ross. There had to be another way, a way that took both the Bible and modern science seriously.

Publishing

At this point (late 2019-early 2020), I started McGahan Publishing House, and I was looking to publish a book on Christian faith and science. I emailed Loren Haarsma, husband to Deborah Haarsma (president of BioLogos), and he referred me to someone who seemed too qualified for my new publishing company, but it worked out for us.

Denis Lamoureux has PhDs in theology and biology — as well as dentistry. As a trained theologian and biologist, he seemed like the perfect prospect for a book on religion and science. With his academic credentials and publishing history — several books by notable publishers, such as Zondervan, and dozens of academic articles — I assumed he was out of our league as we still had not published a book at that point.

But Denis and I hit it off, published two books, including this excellent one, and have plans for more. He liked our independence, both professionally and intellectually — we are free to explore ideas that frighten other publishers, such as the Adam and Eve story not being literal history. Publishing his work and having conversations with him have enabled me to spend even more time examining the origins issue, form connections with others in the field, and discover other thinkers and ideas in science and religion.

This led me to solidify the stances toward which I was already leaning:

  • Evolution is true - like it or not.
  • The global flood of Noah never happened.
  • The earth is billions of years old.
  • Adam and Eve were most likely not the first humans on the earth — if they even existed.
  • The Bible is not a book of science.

But that’s okay, for the Bible still reveals a God who wants to commune with his greatest creation and image bearers.

And that’s what matters — having a spiritual life in which a personal relationship with God is the most important goal of a Christian.

The Third Stone — God

I thought I had it all figured out. I had the end figured out; I had the beginning figured out — the rest would fall into place. Then, at the bottom of the pile of stones sat the most important stone of all …

the cornerstone.

I thought this one was safe, but it wasn’t. It was a major stumbling block for me.

When I encountered the cornerstone during my deconstruction, it was during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and …

the pandemic changed me.

I started thinking a lot more about pain, suffering, and death. I wasn’t scared of dying from Covid. I was relatively low-risk, and I had it — twice. I had the OG Covid before being vaccinated and then the omicron variant after being fully vaccinated. They were both very mild for me.

However, I noticed the people who had different experiences. I saw people I care about die from it. I saw friends and acquaintances lose their spouses, parents, cousins, and grandparents. I heard about children dying from it.

That made me think about death and suffering regarding more than just Covid.

I started thinking about the 6-year old boy who drowned while on a family vacation in Florida.

I started thinking about the poor kids (in America and around the globe) suffering from hunger and extreme poverty.

I started thinking about the innocent children at St. Jude’s suffering from cancer.

I started thinking about the child victims of mass shootings.

I thought about the 12-year old boy who committed suicide because he was being bullied in school.

I started doubting God’s involvement in the world.

There is no doubt that the little 6-year old’s family was praying for a miracle, yet his lifeless body is what they found.

There is little doubt that impoverished families across the globe pray for God’s hand to intervene and feed them, yet he never comes.

Parents spend hours at the chapel altar praying for their child who has cancer, only to plan a funeral a few weeks or months later.

Every time I see a tragic story of a child or innocent person dying or suffering for no reason, I get angry. I get sad, and I sometimes cry when I’m alone, partly because it goes against everything I’m supposed to believe about an all-loving God, and partly because I project all of that suffering onto my own family and children.

I project my wife onto the young, vibrant woman who dies from Covid.

I project my children onto the little boy and girl who just lost their mommy or daddy because the ventilator malfunctioned.

I project my son onto the little baby at St. Jude’s who has no hope of survival and is suffering for no reason.

I can’t help but to think about my 6-year old daughter when I hear about the 6-year old boy who drowns — all alone and scared.

I ask, “Where are you, God?”

He never answers.

Where is God? Why can he not do more? And if he can, why doesn’t he?

The young parent of two little girls who dies from Covid because the ventilator malfunctioned — why couldn’t God prevent that from happening? No one would have known because no one thought it was broken. It was SUPPOSED TO WORK.

Why does the innocent boy at St. Jude’s, who just loves Batman and Iron Man or trucks and tractors, have to get cancer in the first place?

Why can’t God, with barely a movement, rescue the 6-year old? No one would know he did it — he wouldn’t be exposed.

Why can’t he drop some manna from Heaven to the impoverished families? Did he not do it for the Hebrews in the wilderness?

Why can’t God make a gun jam before a deranged person kills innocent children? Gun jams happen without God’s intervention!

It makes no sense. Lex Luthor seemed to be on to something:

If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good.

If God is all-good, he cannot be all-powerful.

Sometimes, I think I understand it, or am at peace with it, but then I just hear about someone else, someone innocent and beautiful, who dies or suffers for no reason — and with no “god” to help them. And many of these are Christian people who are suffering, people who are called “his children.” No father would let his children suffer if he had the power to step in.

I felt myself drifting toward atheism.

I didn’t like that feeling. I had devoted so much of my life to preparation for ministry. I have lived my entire life with my Christian faith as the most important thing. Giving it all up would have huge ramifications. At one point, some felt that I had a bright future in Baptist ministry. And what would it do to my family? I couldn’t even consider that. Maybe I’ll just lie about it, I thought.

I didn’t know of another way. I didn’t think there was a type of theism, especially Christian theism, that would accommodate my doubts.

Then I realized …

What if it’s not God I’m angry with, but the version of God I was raised to believe in?

I noticed that the cornerstone was the toughest of all. My chisel and hammer made some markings on it, but I couldn’t break it. It was chosen as the cornerstone for a reason — it’s tough; it’s strong enough to withstand the mightiest of strokes, and I was swinging my hammer as hard as I ever have. However, my strikes were unable to break the cornerstone because …

The stone I was striking didn’t really exist.

God is not confined to the worldview within which I framed him. My assumptions about God were assumptions I didn’t erase before going on my journey. The fog was still there.

What if we are misinterpreting God altogether?

What if God is something much different than what is defined in typical statements of faith?

What if God is something, someone much more personal?

What if our interpretation of God depends on our view of origins, or our eschatology?

What if Christian theology is a huge mess, and our idea of God is just as messy as anything else?

The idea that a transcendent, omnipresent God is out there intervening in the world, answering prayers, and unfolding a plan just simply does not match reality. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

But people, myself included, still experience God! What do we make of that? Human experience should matter. And in my experience, God is there; God is real. He might not intervene in ways I used to believe, but …

  • he changes lives
  • he inspires people to do great things
  • he brings people together.

God is not without; he is within. God is not an outside force that acts for people; God is a force that acts through people — the people in whom the Spirit of God has dwelt.

The New Structure

None of the options worked for me. I was at the stone supply shop, and none of the samples fit what I had going on. And with my OCD, I had to have something — a theological system that works.

So, I decided to take my stones and build my own.

A new system that makes sense to me …

With my faith structure, I would hold myself accountable: If the world around me isn’t improving, I can blame only myself.

Instead of choosing to see God in the disaster, I choose to see God in the relief — through his people working in God’s name to help those in dire need.

Instead of praying for God to act from the outside, I pray for God to activate me from the inside.

If I can’t change the world, God can motivate me to change someone’s perception of the world. That is often as simple as saying, “Hello! How are you?” It is often as simple as giving someone a sandwich.

That should be what Christian faith is all about.

And then, I discovered some Christian thinkers I had heard about but not really given the time of day: open and relational theologians — men like Thomas Jay Oord, John Cobb, and others.

They believe and teach basically what I believe and teach, especially the parts about how God interacts in the world.

They believe in God and experience God in their lives, but they understand that life sometimes sucks, and although God doesn’t intervene as an outside force to make the world better, he does indwell us and encourage responses from us that will make the world better.

They believe and teach that though prayer does not change the circumstances around us, it does change us.

And I can work from that.

That’s where I’m working from now — using what I have learned biblically, experientially, and theologically to develop this system into something that works for me.

And I think it’s gonna work.

For the first time in a few years, I can honestly say something I wasn’t confident I would ever again be able to say …

I can still be a Christian.


Gandalf and the Open & Relational God




Gandalf and the Open & Relational God

May 8, 2022


Gandalf + Open & Relational Theology = An Unexpected Analogy!


Part of what makes open and relational theology so attractive are its nuances, uncertainties, and variations. Ask any two open and relational thinkers for their view on God, and you will likely receive two answers. That makes sense, for these questions are so complex as to essentially demand different solutions.

Sometimes, we need to get creative to answer them; we might even need to travel to another world.

That’s what I’m going to do here. I’m going to take a little trip to Middle-earth and use Middle-earth’s favorite wizard, Gandalf, to attempt to explain how the open and relational God works.

DISCLAIMER: Tolkien was not fond of allegory, and he had no allegorical intent with his writings. Therefore, I’m not suggesting an allegorical interpretation of Gandalf; I’m suggesting literary application—an approach that Tolkien approved for his readers.

An Emissary

The first comparison to make between Gandalf and God, especially God from an open and relational perspective, is the manner in which both came to Middle-earth/Earth to interact with people. Gandalf isn’t just a regular person in Middle-earth who happened to learn magic; he is an emissary sent to Middle-earth by the deities and spiritual hierarchy in Arda (the entire world in which Middle-earth is located).

Wizardry in Middle-earth isn’t like other stories: People can’t go to Hogwarts and learn how to be a wizard. No, wizards in Middle-earth are part of an exclusive class of spiritual beings known as the Maiar, primordial spirits that work directly with the Valar and their king, Manwë. They are able to take physical form in Middle-earth and have done so in a variety of ways, both good and evil. Some examples of evil Maia in Middle-earth include the balrogs of Morgoth and Sauron himself.

In the Third Age of Middle-earth, five of these Maia were sent by the Valar (basically the “angels” of Arda) to Middle-earth to take the form of wizards. This group of wizards was called the Istari (or in Quenya, “ones who know”). The Istari included Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, the blue wizards Alatar and Pallando, and, last in this list but certainly not least in the Istari pecking order, Gandalf the Grey. According to Tolkien‘s writings and letters, Gandalf was the only one who fulfilled his purpose, which was to rally the free peoples of Middle-earth to contest the will of Sauron.

Gandalf was sent by Manwë to take the form of a wizard and contest the will of Sauron. Gandalf was a spiritual being, and he emptied himself of the glory in Valinor so that he could participate in the world he helped create. And he participated in various ways: as a counselor, a teacher, a warrior, a friend, and a leader — different roles for different people. He took physical form and experienced pain, hunger, emotions, love, anger, fear, etc. — I think you know where I’m going with this (but not yet).

God has also interacted in the world in various ways. He created the world (as Gandalf took part in the world’s creation), he revealed himself as a cloud and burning bush, and, ultimately, he emptied himself of his glory and took physical form (like Gandalf) as Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus, he experienced pain, hunger, emotions, love, anger, fear, etc. And he wasn’t coercive—he inspired people to live for the kingdom through his words and actions. He, like Gandalf, played various roles: counselor, teacher, son, friend, and leader.

Relational

Gandalf was known throughout Middle-earth. The elves knew him and called him Mithrandir; men called him Gandalf; people in the south called him Incánus, and dwarves knew him as Tharkûn. They knew him because he went out of his way to know them. He formed relationships with them—all people from all races in Middle-earth.

Gandalf spent time in the holes of the Shire, and smoked their pipeweed; Gandalf spent time in the halls of the dwarves. He studied in the library of Gondor and rested in the forests and valleys of Rivendell and Mirkwood. And Gandalf likely drank in the great mead hall of Edoras. He went out of his way and traveled far and wide to form relationships with the people he came to counsel, guide, and, in some way, save.

God, like Gandalf, goes out of his way to know us. He meets us where we are and forms personal relationships with us. And people know him by many names: Jesus, Lord, God, Father, Ancient of Days, Yahweh, Jehovah, etc. Some open and relational thinkers propose that God reveals himself to all people, and all the world’s gods, in some way, point to God. They all know him as different names: God, Allah, Krishna, etc. Regardless, God is not bound by geography, cultural background, or race—God, like Gandalf, seeks to know all people and form lasting relationships with them.

Behind the Scenes

As a member of the Istari, Gandalf was not sent to overpower evil in Middle-earth and bend it to his will; he was sent to counsel the freepeople of Middle-earth and guide them toward decisions that weaken the enemy and defend the freepeople. He was not allowed to display his full power as a Maia during his time with the people of Middle-earth. Consider this passage from “The Istari” in Unfinished Tales …
“Emissaries they were from Lords of the West, the Valar, who still took counsel for the governance of Middle-earth, and when the shadow of Sauron began first to stir again took this means of resisting him. For with the consent of Eru they sent members of their own high order, but clad in bodies of as of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain; though because of their noble spirits they did not die, and aged only by the cares and labours of many long years. And this the Valar did, desiring to amend the errors of old, especially that they had attempted to guard and seclude the Eldar by their own might and glory fully revealed; whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men and Elves by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good” (emphasis mine).

See that? Gandalf (and all the Istari) were in Middle-earth to counsel, not coerce. They were forbidden to display their full power; they did not come to rule while in physical form. They were there to advise and persuade people to make their own decisions that would make the world a better place.

When God revealed himself as Jesus Christ, he didn’t display his full power. He suffered, was bound by time, got tired, and went through every human emotion. Sure, he walked on water, turned water into wine, and rose from the dead, but Gandalf talked to animals, made magic fireworks, and … also rose from the dead. Gandalf, like Jesus, bent the rules and displayed power, but only in certain circumstances. Jesus was similar: Remember, he could have summoned angels to save him from his death (Matthew 26:53), but he didn’t. He did not display his full power.

In open and relational theology, God (like Gandalf) doesn’t coerce his people. Through his indwelling presence, he guides, counsels, and leads his people to make decisions that will bring glory to God. He, like Gandalf, has a purpose, he has plans he would like to see come to fruition, but his people must see those plans through, and God’s presence (as counselor, guide, motivator) helps to advise and persuade people to make their own decisions that make the world a better place.

Not a Helicopter Leader

Gandalf was more qualified to handle the conflicts and problems of Middle-earth than anyone else—maybe even elves like Galadriel and Glorfindel. But Gandalf, like the open and relational God, also gave his followers room to grow on their own. He stepped back and let them figure it out through their own strength and will. When Gandalf left Bilbo, Thorin, and the dwarves at the edge of Mirkwood in The Hobbit, he was leaving them in a difficult situation. Gandalf undoubtedly would have made that situation much easier, but by leaving, he forced Bilbo to grow and step up as the leader.

I feel that God, especially from the open and relational perspective, steps back and lets us get through difficult situations on our own. We go through sickness; we go through death and grief. We experience hardship financially, emotionally, spiritually, physically—almost every possible way. An all-powerful God could theoretically step in and solve all of our problems. But perhaps something restrains him?

The deities that sent the Maia, Olórin (Gandalf), sent him with a specific rule that he could not display his full power. Perhaps God has his own rule preventing him from displaying his full power, instead letting human free will run its course and guiding and counseling rather than forcing and coercing. It is better for God to guide us to make good decisions on our own than for God to coerce humanity into the outcomes he desires. Perhaps God’s central attribute, love, prevents him from this level of coercion—an idea Thomas Jay Oord thoroughly explores in his books God Can’t and Pluriform Love. Gandalf is in the same boat: Gandalf could act in his full power, but he can’t.

Fights the Battles We Can’t Face

Gandalf participated in and led some talented and powerful groups: Thorin and Company, the Fellowship of the Ring, and the White Council. The latter was a group of equals and superiors to Gandalf, but the first two consisted of regular men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits—to them, Gandalf was a god among men. Along the way, Gandalf defeated enemies that were beyond the abilities of the company he was with. For example, when Gandalf abandoned the company at the edge of Mirkwood in The Hobbit, he wasn’t scared of the flies and spiders; he was fighting a battle that needed to be fought but was beyond the abilities and power of his company. He, along with the White Council, was driving the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur to protect the North from the growing shadow.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and the Fellowship face an ancient balrog in the Mines of Moria. As the group is trying to escape the mines, they hear the roar and see the flames of this demonic enemy. Those who have seen the film will remember Gandalf saying,

“This foe is beyond any of you. Run!”

The balrog was beyond Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, and all of them combined. But he wasn’t beyond Gandalf—and Gandalf knew that. He knew that he needed to use his power to defeat this ancient foe, which was the same spiritual entity (Maiar) as Gandalf. Gandalf defeated this foe, and he died in the process—though he was resurrected as Gandalf the White.

Likewise, the open and relational God doesn’t coerce, instead guiding and counseling through a personal relationship with his people, but he does and has fought the battles we, as mere humans, are fundamentally unable to face. The first example that comes to mind is Jesus defeating the greatest foe: death. Death now has no sting; death now has no power. But death’s defeat had nothing to do with us; it had all to do with the God, Jesus, who knew that it was beyond us. He defeated the foe, but he died in the process. However, like Gandalf, he rose again in robes of white, and he, just as Gandalf the White did for his friends and followers, gave us access to an even more powerful ally.

Conclusion

In my opinion, Gandalf is a powerful example of the open and relational God. He emptied and humbled himself of his glory to experience life like us so that he could truly relate with us. He guides us and counsels us to good decisions and good works. He doesn’t coerce us, and, consequently, the future is open to the future we create. It could go well; it could be delayed by struggles, trials, and tribulations, but God is always there, within us, guiding us and empowering us to make the world a better place. God, like Gandalf, has fought the most important battles—the battles we could not face. And his victory and resurrection has given us access to the power we need to act on his behalf and partner with him as we renew the Earth.

Someone once said, “We all need a little Gandalf on our shoulder.”

Fortunately, as Christians, we do have a little Gandalf on our shoulder.