Monday, August 02, 2010

Pond Scum Theology

I finished Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town over the weekend. As I mentioned on Friday, I hear some of my own journey in hers. She speaks at length about the crisis of faith that she endured, along with her friends' attempts at helpfulness that really weren't all that helpful. She names some of the cliches and pat answers that these people give; the exact same that I expected to hear years ago if I shared my own crisis too widely. Thankfully, she did find a few who made more of an attempt to take her doubts and questions seriously.

I digress. One attempt at helpfulness that Evans shares has had me thinking, especially as I prepared for yesterday's preaching. Evans shares part of an e-mail exchange with her friend Andy, which is actually meant to be a composite representation. In this conversation, "Andy" says this:
The truth is, God is utterly disgusted by our sin, and it is a miracle that he chooses to save any of us to begin with. Without him, we are vile and disgusting and worthy only of damnation[...]None of us are worthy of God's grace, Rachel. I know that I am not. I encourage you to stop challenging God's sovereignty and consider taking a position of humility and thankfulness.
See? Weren't these people awesomely helpful?

Besides that, I've been thinking a lot about the "God finds us disgusting" mindset. This is not my first encounter with this thinking, which I believe is rooted in a high Calvinism. It's the T in TULIP: Total Depravity. Humanity is completely sinful, unable to save itself and unable to earn God's love and mercy. The "disgusting" piece, Evans notes, is an editorial addition thanks in part to Jonathan Edwards' famed/notorious sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It has endured thanks to high-profile pastors like Mark Driscoll, who preaches about how much God hates us and our sinful ways. It is the same line of thought that I heard several times when people in college tried to correct me in the error of my ways. I was told that God is an angry God, and thus I should return from my wandering.

The implications of this theology may be fairly obvious. If God is angry and hateful, then God governs us by fear. We don't want to make God angry...we wouldn't like him when he's angry. So one is inspired to not sin out of fear; out of a sense that we don't want to incite God's hatred any more than we already have. We're not inspired to love because God loves us; we're inspired to not screw up so that God doesn't send us to hell. Evans calls this "pond scum theology."

Coincidentally, one of the texts suggested by the lectionary for yesterday was Hosea 11:1-11, the very first verse of which reads, "When Israel was a child, I loved him." For me, "pond scum theology" flies out the window just with that one verse. But there's more:
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king; because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call; but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
God here is presented as a grieving parent desiring Israel to return to faithfulness. Notice all the tender, longing language; the questions and eventual resolution about giving Israel up in wrath.

Is there anger here? Sure there is. In that middle section, God is ready to leave Israel to its own devices. Let the people be carried off to Assyria! Let them be devoured! They'll call out, but I won't answer. But God is shown here to be more conflicted than that: "How can I give you up?...My heart recoils." God is grieving, God is angry, but God is also conflicted due to the love that God feels for God's people. They're not pond scum...they're God's beloved children who will be called back in ways other than through complete hatred and anger.

Of course, this is far from the only instance in scripture of God being a loving God. A refrain throughout the Old Testament is that "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." In one of the most famous verses, John 3:16, we read, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Many like to focus on the "believe or perish" aspect of this verse, but it begins with God loving the world. That's why God does any of it to begin with.

This "God thinks we're disgusting" theology is at best incomplete and at worst outright destructive. I don't disagree that human sin and repentance are important theological and Biblical aspects to be taken seriously. However, these things are rooted in a God of grace and steadfast love rather than wrath and continual hatred.