Advent 2001 …December 2nd, a holy, four-week period of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus begins today. It is also for those who claim Christian roots, a significant time of patient and persistent prayer. It is a time of “ thin-edged” listening for the always hopeful and ever present voice of God. Advent is what the earlier Church called the “ Winter Lent” , a time of introspective anticipation for the celebration of God’ s love, born into the world on Christmas Day.
The events of September 11 … and the revelation of anthrax outbreaks in both Florida and New York were the topics of a recent round table discussion involving clergy colleagues. In the course of that discussion, the question surfaced as to what role, if any, God had played in the holocaust? Much to my horror, one of the priests suggested that, “ God really was active and present in all of it,” and explained that “ after all, the airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center’ s Twin Towers could have in fact been filled to their capacity with passengers.” “ The same could be said,” went on the priest “ for the jet that crashed into the Pentagon and the airliner that went down in an open field in rural Pennsylvania. There surely would have been many more deaths in the collapse of both twin towers had it not been for the active hand and presence of God.”
I was shocked…almost too stunned to respond when these pronouncements were offered and even more overwhelmed by the response of my clergy colleagues who really could see no difficulty in this simplistic overview of a limiting, theistic God. Is this really how we view the active presence of God in the world? Is this the theology that we are teaching to our congregations and especially our children? Is this also the theological and contextual view of Christianity that we are projecting upon a conflicted and broken world? I am afraid that far too often the answer to this question is, yes! Some very simple theological definitions would seem to be in order to better understand the possible origin of that priest’ s observations about God’ s involvement with the attacks of September 11th.
Theism is extracted from the Greek “ theos,” meaning god, and can be traced back to the earliest writings of Plato. Theism, simply stated, is the belief in one personal creator-God, distinct from the world but yet active in it. The three major theistic world religions are Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Theism is distinctly different from deism, which does not accept the revelations of a God active in the world. And pantheism holds that all is God and God is therefore not distinct from the world.
Was the active hand of a theistic God involved in the holocaust of September 11 and was a theistic God responsible for the deaths of almost 5000 innocent souls as was stated by the priest at our round table discussion? Was a theistic God’ s hand present in Florida, the District of Columbia, Virginia, New York, Nevada, Indiana and elsewhere only a few seem to have been infected by the anthrax virus when the possibilities of mass infections could have been a reality? Just where is God in all of this and how does our vision of God play out in these unimaginable horrors? As we are asking these questions, we should also ask where the active presence of a theistic God of Islam is in all of this? Did God have an active hand in guiding the hearts, wills and minds of Islamic terrorists so that they would kill not only themselves but over 4000 perceived infidels in order to remain faithful to an Islamic theology defined by a theistic God? As we ask these questions, we must also ask the same questions about any act of violence or terrorism that kills or maims any member of the human family in the name of God and that is sustained by religious belief.
The limited, fundamentalist, theological and iconographic understanding of a Christian theology that would justify God in engaging the world in such an inhuman way that over 4000 human souls would be sacrificed on September 11 instead of possibly 10,000 is a cruel and incredulous theology. Behind such a tragically failed theology, there lies an even greater heresy. Yet it is this heresy that Christianity too often lives into and it is this heresy that also lives within the hearts of both Judaism and Islam as well. It is now time to bury deeply this very horrific image of a theistic Christian God.
The heresy of a violent and selective God who picks and chooses victims and allows for the suffering of a few or many, depending on circumstances, is a heresy that comes to Christianity, Judaism and Islam from writing and theological reflection that is well over 1,000 years old and translates with difficulty in our 21st century. Its place and relevance in the 21st century can better be understood by the image of you or me riding a donkey to work in 2001 on the Beltways surrounding the District of Columbia. Not only is this form of travel impractical because of the times in which we live, it just doesn’t work, and is downright dangerous! The rider of the donkey can either accept change and drive an automobile on the Beltways or decry the role of the automobile and sabotage all motor vehicles so that the highways will only convey donkeys and other four—legged traffic. The image fits regrettably with the time worn cry of institutional Christianity and the Church; “ If we could only go back to the good old days!”
This desire to hold back theological, cultural and political change by adhering to strict, literal scriptural interpretation provides the right chemistry for religious wars against a rapidly changing world and is at the heart of not only unhealthy Christian theism but is also the driving force behind the fundamental forces of Judaism and Islam. It is this limited, fundamental theism that drives Osama bin Laden. It was this limited, fundamentalist theism that caused the horrific killings attached to the Crusades; the fire-tempered executions of the Inquisition, and that also make it possible for the rise of totalitarianism. Anglicans and especially Episcopalians have witnessed and continue to witness first hand theistic fundamentalism at its worst as the Church continues to struggle with human sexuality issues and other issues that smack of the possibility of change from what is known to what might become new and less comprehensible to understand. The Christian Church has always feared change and has most always condemned those things that it could not understand.
What must be said today as the world confronts the clashing of religious fundamentalism with contemporary culture is that we must continue to seek a more realistic and meaningful understanding of the God that is centered within the forces of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That understanding can no longer be in a theistic God who wreaks wrath and vengeance upon the faithful and unfaithful. For Christians this new vision must come from a clearer understanding of the person and presence of Jesus Christ.
If we can glean anything from Jesus’ life, teaching and death, it is that the real knowledge of God and the active presence of God in the world are always defined by unconditional love. It is when love is absent that evil and darkness take over the human soul and when death reigns over life. Jesus is remembered not for his adherence to orthodoxy or fundamentalism. He is remembered for his ability as God’ s son to love unequivocally and extravagantly. Even Christ’ s death is known as the Passion. And what more can be said about passion other than a love that extends beyond the limits of human understanding.
God’ s active presence in the world is lived out through us as we in turn attempt to live into the concept of extravagant love. The time worn phrase “ God is Love” has become almost as memorialized and misunderstood as the Lord’ s Prayer, but it contains the powerful truth of the nature of the expanding vision of a God for this new century. For God is active in the world and present where and when there is love. Rather than create a golden idol to define or image this God, Christians have been given the gift of Jesus Christ and the Gospel records of his teaching, preaching, living and his extravagant loving. It is through these images of an extravagantly loving, caring and accepting Jesus that we come to experience the presence of a new God, the God of a “ new” 21st Century Covenant.
- Not the theistic God of fundamentalism and orthodoxy, but the God of new possibilities and theological possibilities.
- Not the God of the ancient darkness, but the God of new light and dazzling revelation.
- Not the God of ignorance, but the God of enlightenment and wisdom.
- Not the God of war, but the God of a world peace that passes all understanding.
- Not the God of disease and brokenness but the God of healing and wholeness.
- Not the God of human judgment and exclusion, but the God of divine forgiveness and inclusion.
- Not the God of apathy and neglect, but the God of compassion and caring.
- Not the God of death but the God of life.
- Not the God of class, race and division, but the God of equality and wholeness.
- Not the God of poverty and want, but the God of abundance and sharing.
God is absent from the world when you and I fail to live into the theology of extravagant love. The God of Christianity, Islam and Judaism did not participate in, activate, empower, or engage in the tragic loss of life at the Word Trade Center. Human beings who lost the most fundamental nature of their faith’ s traditions were responsible for that horror. The death of thousands in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others throughout the world at the hands of religious bigots and terrorists is not by the hand of God but rather through the active hands of persons who have lost their humanity in the name of a God who existed over 1,000 years ago and hovers now, ghost-like, as a shadow on the human imagination…an imagination fueled by freeze-dried, wistful sentiment, fantasy, and a ruthless adherence to unchanging theology and cultural nihilism.
In a very real sense, Jesus’ s own death occurred as a violent reaction at the hands of religious zealots and fundamentalists who could not extend themselves beyond their own fear of change and a new image of a God that promised freedom, wholeness, unconditional love, and a new way of looking at the world and the human condition. Christians know this God as the eternal power of all life that affirms the creation and all its creatures through the extravagant claim of “ behold I make all things new.” The power of Jesus’ love will always overcome death with life.
The events of September 11 force Christianity, Judaism and Islam to face their greatest challenge; coming to terms with a new understanding of God that no longer carries with it the ancient theistic, anthropomorphic baggage of an unbending, puppeteer-like deity who picks and chooses winners and losers, victims and survivors, based on who is most deserving by their unfailing, unbending devotion to religious fundamentalism and orthodoxy. There is a battle raging now for the “ right” definition and place of God within the three great theistic religions of the world. The winner, if there is to be one, will be determined by who loves most and hates least.