Although we have moved on from the last series of posts where I examined the ‘Closed Universe’ of my background and tradition – I was reminded today that part of belonging to that universe was a distinct ‘them and us’ attitude – although it would not be couched in such stark terms.
Of course this is far from an issue reserved for religious people. It has been found in every culture, tribe and tradition since the creation of the human race. In or out – belonging or not belonging – our village or outsider – local or incomer – and so the list could go on.
When it comes down to it though, in the world of religion, it really has to do with how we see and understand the God we worship and claim to believe in. Is he a God who shows favouritism, a God who chooses one over another, and if, as in the Christian tradition, we say we believe in a God of love – does that mean God loves some and not others – that he rejects some and accepts others? In other words – is his love an arbitrary love?
How you answer this question will, of course, depend very much on your theological stance on such matters, if indeed you have one. The Reformed tradition of ‘Calvinism’ in which I was raised, must, of necessity come down on the side of an arbitrary God – for it teaches that some are born to destruction and others for salvation – so the ‘elect’ are ‘in’ and others are ‘out’. This subject, as I suggested in a recent post, is a massive landscape filled with theological minefields – any one of which can destroy the unwary. I am not experienced enough in mine clearing techniques to enter this danger area with any degree of confidence. I have seen too many accidents here and, sadly, some fatalities.
Nevertheless it is all very confusing – and theologians have argued over it since theology was invented – so what chance have we mere mortals in understanding it all? Well, for myself, part of the answer has been to come to the point where I am content to live with mystery. However at another level I need some closure – or if you like some understanding of, what to me, are foundational questions – such as – with what measure of love does God love us? Is it true, as Calvinists claim, that his love is arbitrary and elective (in the sense of being exclusive – I know election can have a meaning other than this)? Does God love everyone with an equal love? And if so how does that play out in the great scheme of things?
My first stop here must surely be the foundational statement of the Apostle John –
‘Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.’
1 John 4:8 (NIV)
If God is love – by dint of his nature I take it that he loves everyone. He created in love, sustains in love and ultimately his love will have the final victory. If this is not true then there is a flaw in his love – and the nature of God is brought into question. However, many have and do question this assertion. It appears particularly inconvenient to the Calvinist given their theology. It is very interesting to discover that in his monumental work – ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ a very thorough document of over 1500 pages on Christian doctrine and practice, Calvin never once discusses this foundational verse regarding the core nature of God!
I spent a good part of 30 years in another life watching Criminal Solicitors plying their trade. I watched as inconvenient facts were glossed over or a different spin put on them. What I found in the courts of the Church was much the same. Verses that were an inconvenience to the prevailing doctrines of the denomination were overlooked, others were twisted to mean something that seemed so improbable as to be unbelievable, and different traditions or interpretations cast aside with the flick of a finger.
So what to believe? How to believe it? Well, again, the minefield or if you like maze of smoke and mirrors that is the Reformed/Calvinistic view of all this is not up for discussion here. But let me leave you with a practical example of how things sometimes pan out in reality.
I suspect Jonah was a Calvinist in his doctrine and theology. He belonged to the true Church (see last post) and his people were the chosen people – no doubt about it. They had ‘most favoured nation’ status as far as God was concerned – or so Jonah believed. The church Jonah belonged to was pure – not like the heathen nations beyond the walls of his denomination. In Jonah’s estimation the city that epitomised all that was evil in his day was Nineveh. It was the ‘sin city’ of the age – corrupt, violent, degenerate and godless. So when the call of God came instructing Jonah to head there and preach repentance and forgiveness he promptly headed due south – as far away from Nineveh as possible. But an encounter with transport issues and a run of general bad luck eventually had him heading in God’s direction. Of course we know the outcome – Nineveh, to Jonah’s shock and horror, repented. We would have expected the evangelist to be overjoyed – but the truth was, such a result so went against his doctrine and the teaching of his denomination, that he was devastated. He though his church and his people were the only ones God should be concerned with. So, instead of rejoicing we find Jonah screaming defiance at God –
‘Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!’
Jonah 4 1-2 (MSG)
So poor Jonah had doubts after all – and his nagging doubts turned out to be right all along. I have no reason to believe that Jonah’s real gut feeling about God was deficient in any way or that God has changed his tune over the intervening years.
Interestingly, it is Jesus himself, when questioned by the descendants of Jonah as to the validity of his right to preach the grace and mercy of God to all people, who brings up the subject of Nineveh –
‘On Judgment Day, the Ninevites will stand up and give evidence that will condemn this generation, because when Jonah preached to them they changed their lives.’
Matthew 12:41 (MSG)
As I have said, Jesus is here addressing the physical and spiritual descendants of Jonah. These were the top notch theologians of their day who had all their doctrine worked out – and yet, and yet – they missed their moment of grace and blew it! All because he was one of them and not one of us! And in so doing they missed the God who is love and opted instead for their religion and tradition.