Sunday, December 28, 2008

who is God in our experience?

on october 12 of this year i suffered a heart attack. i wouldn't recommend it. i will tell you this, it rocked my world. besides the loss of stamina and concentration, however, there were some benefits. being laid up for six weeks gave me some time to reflect upon my understanding of just who God is in this experience.

first, let me say that everything in our theology (not just theology proper) hangs on our view of God. this is true if our theology is well-reasoned and thought-through (studied), and it is also true if our theology is haphazard and garnered from television evangelists(rote).

take for instance the idea of the sovereignty of God. i would argue that our view of God’s sovereignty offers us an authentic snapshot of what we think about God and his world.

to get an unvarnished statement of the historic protestant stance on sovereignty we can read the words of the gifted theologian john murray:

"The sovereignty of God I take to be the absolute authority, rule, and government of God in the whole of that reality that exists distinct from Himself in the realms of nature and of grace. It is a concept that respects His relation to other beings and to all other being and existence. It is, therefore, a relative concept, or a concept of relation."

as far as it goes, this statement is without offense, but if we were to ask the question: if God is sovereign over the whole of reality, is God then the author of evil? dr. murray would say that he was:

"It [the "all-pervasiveness" of sovereignty] respects good and evil, so that even the sins of men come within the scope of his rule and providence...the teaching of Scripture on the divine sovereignty requires us to recognize with Calvin that all events are governed by the secret counsel and directed by the present hand of God..."

[for all the murray quotes go here: ]

so, am i to conclude from dr. murray that God caused my heart attack? you mean it wasn't that i had eaten wrong for 50 years, and had poor sleep and exercise practices? really? it was God's fault and not mine?

of course, this is not how the sovereignists would put it. they would say something like this: "no, fat boy, you are responsible for what you do, but God is ultimately responsible."

now, i've heard plenty of this kind of theo-speak during my life-time, and i don't pretend to know what this means anymore, but i can tell you that this kind of double talk no longer holds any attraction for me. i’m fed-up with it because the personal, cognitive security here sought by the sovereignists comes at too high a price.

take my recent experience while convalescing. people often said to me, "well, God must not be done with you yet," or, "God never puts on you more than he puts in you to hold it up." these kind statements were meant to encourage me by offering angles of the sovereignty of God. but if the sovereignty of God means what dr. murray proclaims, i am not comforted. if sovereignty means that God is the author of evil then i am not encouraged.

for example, (an irreverent question) is God the author of Auschwitz?

this is important. the jews are God's chosen people after all, and yet when push came to shove do you think God actually incited the nazis' ovens? is God responsible?

here is where the sovereignists retreat for cover under the "secret counsel of God's will." dr. murray's answer, quoting b.b. warfield, is an example: "the moral quality of the deed, considered in itself, is rooted in the moral character of the subordinate agent, acting in the circumstances and under the motives operative in each instance."'

that is, God caused the deed, but the secondary agent is blamed. how does this help?

for me, if God is ultimately the author of Auschwitz, then i walk away. if God is ultimately the author of swollen bellies and maggot filled eyes and race-bating and poor seniors choosing between food and medicine, then i walk away.

now, of course, i will be told that this argument is not cerebral enough. it is too emotive, too inflammatory, too personal. i stand guilty as charged.

let me tell you a story. back in the day i used to lead an inner-city center in indianapolis. we had a gal, a raging drunk, who used to come in for food. she was a little thing, always emaciated, face as black as coal and eyes so yellow from sickness that each time you saw her you had to figure that this would be your last.

I remember one of our workers catching her on a sober day, and since we had been working with her for years she trusted us enough to let her story come out. She had lived in baltimore where a house fire had claimed her entire family, including her babies. it seemed she felt this was all her fault -- whether it was or not i don't remember -- which was enough to drive her off the ledge.

by all "christian" accounts this gal was as "lost" as she could be. but i began to think about sovereignty in a different way after her. i began to ask, could God really condemn a person like this, who had already suffered the tortures of the damned? could God really decided before the foundation of the world that this little gal would be forever a throwaway and i would be ok? is this really the God we serve?

oh, i know well the sovereignists’ favorite question, will the pot say to the potter, why have you formed me this way? but i say to you -- the God of the sovereignists destroys and crushes humanity to powder. it leaves us (all but the chosen few) without meaning in a meaningless universe.

said another way, it’s a funny thing how the sovereignists always believe that they are one of the chosen ones. why?

so, today, if i'm asked, “is God sovereign?” i always say it depends on what you mean. if you mean that God is the absolute author of war and greed and hate and genocide and treachery and homelessness and heart-attacks and fires, then no, i don't believe in sovereignty. but if you mean that God accepts our choices with ultimate seriousness, that he accepts our human responsibility with seriousness, that he accepts our prayers with seriousness, that he is not immutable at all but is actually touched, truly touched, by the feelings of our infirmities, and that he takes all these things and in real-time is still able, in his creativity, to accomplish his will, then, well, yes, i guess i do believe in sovereignty.