“God Can Handle Our Tough Questions” And Other Expressions of Certainty

The embrace of doubt and mystery in the life of faith has become somewhat of a trend recently, especially in more progressive churches. This push to include more expressions of unknowing in our worship and liturgy is indeed a much needed corrective to what can only be described as the triumphalistic and naively positive faith of many American Christians. But we have to ask ourselves: when we do talk about doubt in the Church do we let this sense of unknowing go all the way down to the core of our being or do we house our doubt within an even greater system of certainty?

A few years ago I wrote a devotional for a Bible class that I was TAing about Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. In the devotional I pushed my listeners to consider the idea that even Jesus felt forsaken by God in his hour of need and so we too ought to expect to, at times, feel as though God is absent. This short devotional was my apology for a more honest and real faith, one that is not afraid to ask difficult questions of God or express our doubt as a part of our worship. However, throughout this devotional I ground this call for a faith that can express doubt within a deeper sense of certainty. Take the following line as an example:

The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent.

Implicit in this claim is the idea that what was ultimately true in this scene was God’s enduring presence with Jesus despite Jesus’ experience of the loss of God. In other words, we can be sure that even when we feel like God is absent, he really is there holding us and ensuring that our suffering works out for some greater good. Thus, this sense of doubt that I was defending was really no doubt at all but was instead just a lack of perspective for what’s ultimately true and what we can be absolutely certain of is God’s guarantee that our suffering is meaningful.

Here’s another line from the devotional:

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion.

Here again unknowing is placed within an overarching sense of certainty that “God can handle our tough questions.”

It’s been a few years since I wrote this devotional and so I’ve come to a bit of different understanding of what role doubt, mystery, lament and unknowing might play in the life of faith. I’ve begun to wonder if talking about doubt as I did in this devotional, that is, as grounded in a deeper, overriding sense of certainty, is really enough. I’ve begun to ask myself what it might look like to let doubt and uncertainty go all the way down to the core of our being, that is, to lament the sad state of our world without any sort assurance that things are all happening for the better or that God can handle such difficult questions.

What if things don’t actually work out for good?

What if life on earth is just a cosmic accident?

What if no one is listening to us when we pray?

As a final thought I want to ask what it might look like to enact this more radical sense of doubt in a liturgical setting. In what ways might our gatherings create space in which we actually experience the loss of God as Jesus did on the cross?

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Was Jesus Faking It?

I think one of the mistakes of popular Christology lies in the idea that Jesus could have, if he really wanted to, displayed his divine omnipotence on the cross by defeating his executioners in a grand display of power and might. Jesus, in this framework, was holding back, as it were, masking his divine power under a shroud of human frailty and weakness in order to accomplish salvation.

What’s not recognized by those who hold this position is that such an articulation bears a striking resemblance to the docetic heresy. Docetism, which was ultimately condemned in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea, asserts that Jesus merely appeared to be a human, that what was perceived to be a normal human body was in actuality a facade behind which lied Jesus’ true nature, namely, pure divinity. In other words, docetism understands Jesus’ humanity to be an illusion.

Contra docetism and its contemporary derivatives, I would argue that Jesus’ humanity goes all the way down, that there was no hidden divine power underneath the display of weakness on the cross. Jesus couldn’t have gotten himself off the cross even if he wanted to (which, given the excruciating pain and humiliation of crucifixion, he most certainly did). In short, Jesus wasn’t faking it.

Rather than seeing the pitiful display of weakness on the cross as illusory or as a veil covering Jesus’ true nature as an omnipotent super-being, I would argue that the weakness of Jesus on the cross is in actuality the true locus of divinity in this scene. The nature of God in Jesus was not suppressed on the cross but was rather fully displayed. The weakness and frailty wasn’t a show. That’s actually how God is.

Caputo puts it this way:

If we take from this that Jesus could, with the wave of his hand or a wink of his eye, demolish these Roman soldiers but freely chose not to exert his omnipotence because he was on a divine mission, then we would concede that he merely seems, docet, to be a helpless and innocent victim of this power. But that is what he was in truth. The radical uprooting of Docetism demands that we locate the divinity of this scene of misery and defeat, the sacredness of its memory, not in some hidden divine power play or long-term investment in a divine economy of salvation. The sacredness lies in the cries of protest that rise up from the scene. The event to be willed here is the depth of outrage at the injustice of imperial power, of the crushing of the Kingdom by worldly forces. The divinity lies in the identification of the name of God, for Jesus was the eikon of God, not with Roman power but with an innocent victim of that power, not with retribution but with the act of forgiveness that is attributed to Jesus by the evangelists. (After the Death of Godpg. 63).

Did God Send Jesus To Die For Our Sins?

The theo-nerdiest podcast on the intertubes, Homebrewed Christianity, just finished up what they called the Easter call-in challenge in which listeners of the podcast called in and responded to a post written by one of the makers of the podcast, Bo Sanders. Essentially, Bo’s argument is that God sent Jesus into the world for many reasons and Jesus, because he was faithful to God’s intention for sending him into the world, was then murdered unjustly by an oppressive system that was threatened by his radical message of forgiveness, love and peace. You can read the original post here.

Ken Alton from northern British Columbia called in with this response:

Did God send Jesus to die on a cross? Did God send Jesus to die for our sins?

 My reaction is to say no. God sent Jesus to save us.

And I want to say that there was a possibility, even way back in biblical times, that Israel, responding in human freedom, could have realized just who this Messiah was and got behind and between and caught up in the kin-dom, such that all nations would have been drawn to that light, that human flourishing and the kin-dom be proclaimed to the ends of the earth without there being a cross in the story.

I want to say that even with the Sanhedrin being all caught up in shoring up their hierarchy and religiosity, then  Pilate and Herod could have responded, in human freedom, to the invitation of God in their ears at that moment, to the invitation of God standing right in front of them, and set Jesus free, not only set him free but got behind and between and caught up in the kin-dom and taken it to the ends off the earth in a different way, also without there being a cross in the story.

Jesus could have lived to a ripe old age, teaching thousands of brew-babies brought to him from miles around, sitting on a swing hanging from a tree to fulfill the prophecy. And after he died in his sleep, God still could have raised him from the grave and the lesson of new life could have been learned, and the giving of the Spirit could all have happened without a cross.

If none of that was a real possibility on Christmas morning, then something is wrong in how I understand our human freedom to say yes to Sophia’s divine wisdom whispered in each and every ear. I know we live in a world where the cross did happen. Thank God that cross is not the end of the story. Maybe if we spent less time focused on Jesus having to die for us, we could open ourselves to being able to live into that kin-dom that is always coming near, so near that it is among us even now.

Identity Politics and the Cross: Peter Rollins on the Scapegoat Mechanism

I’ve written a bit in the past on the scapegoat mechanism. This is the idea that one of the ways human communities function is by uniting in hatred against a designated “other”, the result being that this chosen victim is usually excluded from community or, at worst, killed sacrificially in order to keep the peace.

Peter Rollins, in a recent response to a critique of his Atheism for Lent project, made an interesting observation about the way that the scapegoat mechanism has functioned in the church, particularly in relation to the way the church has responded to the gay community’s cry for justice and equality:

This is why the liberal strategy of opening up communities to previously scapegoated others is not, in itself, sufficient. In religious terms we can note how some conservative churches are beginning to open up to the possibility that gays and lesbians can be equal members of their community.  Just as they eventually learned to reject explicit racism and sexism now they are gradually learning to overcome heterosexism. But the problem is that the fundamental structure of scapegoating is not broken in the acceptance of the latest “other,” and if the underlying scapegoat mechanism is not decommissioned then new “others” will always arise to protect the group from its own internal conflicts.

There will always be an other as long as we refuse to face ourselves. For example in some of these groups gays and lesbians are now being accepted as long as they embrace the idea of lifelong monogamous marriage. This means that those, gay and straight, who don’t accept that lifestyle for themselves can be excluded as immoral, corrupt and a threat to the institution of marriage.

One of the things Rollins has pointed out in his most recent book The Idolatry of God is that in too many instances has the label “Christian” become another identity marker that serves to distinguish “us” (those who are in, the blessed, the righteous, etc.) from “them” (the infidels, the heretics, the unrepentant, the sinners, etc.). Thus, the Church is just as guilty as “the outsiders” when it comes to playing the game of identity politics or utilizing the scapegoat mechanism to keep the peace.

The Church’s “other” has taken many forms. In the past it was slaves and women (indeed, there are parts of the Church in which the scapegoating of this “other” is still functioning). Today we could say that the Church’s “other” is the gay community.

Rollins points out that the answer to the church’s refusal to grant full acceptance to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is not to become more “open and affirming” (a badge that even progressives like to wear). The result of such action would merely be that we find a different “other” to scapegoat and unite against. Indeed, in many communities this is already happening. Gays and lesbians are welcome but not those who refuse to conform to our view of marriage and commitment (covenant, monogamous relationships only). Those who refuse to conform are then excluded in the name of maintaining our community’s boundaries defining who’s in and who’s out.

To become more open and affirming fails to challenge the underlying scapegoat mechanism that caused us to have an “other” in the first place.

Rollins argues that on the cross Jesus experienced the loss of all identity. As the community that gathers in remembrance of the one without an identity, the Church refuses to draw lines in the sand that separate “us” from “them.”

One of Paul’s radical insights was that he did not see the event of Christ as simply another identity to place alongside the others. Instead, he wrote of a different type of cut, one that cuts across all these concretely existing identities [Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female, etc.*]. In an unprecedented move, he wrote of how those who identify with Christ are no longer held captive by these categories… (pg. 106)

Jesus’ passion teaches us that the scapegoat mechanism is not to be utilized by those in the Church. Rather than finding unity in the sacrificing or exclusion of a chosen victim, the Church, as a community of those who identify with Christ’s loss of identity on the cross, gathers around a table where we break bread and remember our crucified Messiah. We are called not to play the game of identity politics.

Djesus And The Nature of the Cross

SNL has caused quite a ruckus with its making of Djesus Uncrossed, a satirical twist of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Django Unchained. 

The video gets its comedic punch from the irony in seeing the non-violent and cross-dead Messiah toting a machine gun and taking out his enemies Rambo style. Many Christians were upset at SNL’s portrayal of Jesus but I couldn’t help but think: Haven’t we brought this on ourselves? Isn’t SNL just forcing us to confront an image of Jesus that is present in much of the way we talk about Jesus as he is going to appear at the Second Coming?

It seems to me that the Jesus of Djesus Unchained is the very one that is revealed in a great deal of conservative Evangelical theology. This is the Jesus who, upon his return, will strike down his enemies in the same way that Caesar strikes down his enemies, namely, with violence and force.

This leads to some important questions concerning how we understand the cross:

  • Was Jesus’ non-violent forgiveness on the cross an actual revelation of who God is or was it a momentary act of grace coming from an otherwise relentless and vengeful God?
  • Is God really as nice as Jesus or was the cross his way of putting off his violent retaliation for another time?

For me the cross indicates that God would rather die than coerce people. In the same way, God would rather forgive than seek revenge. The cross teaches us that God’s power is the power of weakness and frailty. God’s is the power of powerlessness. Rather than being a momentary blip on the radar between the genocidal God of the Israelite conquest and the war-waging God of Revelation, I think that the cross is where our understanding of God comes into sharpest focus which means that the former two images of God must be re-imagined and reinterpreted in light of the latter.

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Here are a few other blogs that I found interesting on the same subject:

The Absence of God: Reflections on Matthew 27:45-50

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” – Matthew 27:45-50

This passage has come to mean quite a lot to me the more I have grown as a disciple. I love it because in it we find raw and passionate emotion. In his hour of desperation we find Jesus addressing God in a way that is honest and real, even if his words weren’t “theologically correct.” The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent. As the nails were driven through his hands and his vision became increasingly blurred from the blood running off of his brow, in a moment of excruciating pain and suffering, Jesus experienced the absence of God.

This is an experience that is familiar to me. Sometimes it seems that God is absent. Sometimes it seems that he doesn’t hear or see me. There are times when my perception and experience seem to indicate that he is distant and uninvolved. Perhaps you could relate. I would argue that our experience of God forsakenness is most definitely perceived, however, the experience, much like Jesus’, is still very real.

It is my contention that Jesus’ own experience of the absence of God legitimates our own experience. If Jesus is our model when it comes to living life as a fully human being then we ought to expect at least some degree of the experience of God-forsakenness. Let me be clear. I do not think that the experience of the absence of God should remain a constant in the life of the believer. Our experience of the cross, that is, our experience of God’s absence is always followed by the resurrection—the experience of God’s miraculous inbreaking. The order is important, though. Easter follows Good Friday. The resurrection follows the cross. Jesus’ vindication in his new life came after his experience of God’s absence. Our celebration of Sunday is cheapened when we don’t acknowledge the darkness of Friday.

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion. It’s okay to cry if things aren’t going well.

Lamenting is an acknowledgment of the fact that the world is not as it should be. In a world ravaged with war, hunger, poverty, isolation, loneliness and depression, the church dares to cry out to the Creator of all in the belief that he listens.

I commend to you the following song because I think it is true to the tradition of Israel’s lament and takes seriously the absence of God that Jesus experienced on the cross and that we experience from time to time. It’s a song that is honest and raw and doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions of life.