Invitation to Dinner
I’ve never received an invitation from the President of the United States for dinner. Who receives such invitations?
- People who the president has important business with
- People who the president wishes to honor
- People from whom the president wants something
I know that Christians can sometimes express a lot of impatience with non-Christians. They shouldn’t. If you sit back and look at Christianity’s claims, Christians should probably be more sober about our ability to really believe this stuff.
In Exodus 24 we have a story of a banquet spread out for Moses and the leaders of Israel upon the mountain.
Exodus 24:9–11 (NET)
9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up,10 and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear like the sky itself.11 But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank.
America’s Nice, Casual God
Americans who read this text might not think it to be a big deal, or pay more attention to the detail of the pavement than the strangeness of the event. The kind of God we imagine, if we imagine there is one at all, is the kind of God that of course would have me over for lunch. He’d be flattered and pleased that I would pay him any attention at all. We imagine God is just that way.
Where would we get such an assumption? Does this assumption really make much sense?
Let’s imagine that I decide I want to have dinner with the 1000 most powerful, famous, beautiful, wealthy and important people in America. Let’s imagine that I send them letters, trying calling them on the phone and send emails saying that I’ll take them out to eat to a really nice restaurant. How many would you imagine would actually take me up on my invitation? My guess is zero. My guess is that I would probably be unable to personally contact any of these people. Why don’t they have time for me? Why would they turn down a free meal?
Perceived Usefulness of People Establishes the Pecking Order
I could cut back on my aspirations considerably, and even try just to get lunch with mega-church pastors and similarly fail. Why? Because no matter how much we like to say “all people are created equal” there have always been and will always be some who are more equal than others. This world is full of pecking orders and we are all located on it at some place.
If I invented a machine to take carbon out of the air and turn it into diamonds everyone would be happy with me except the diamond cartel, and the president would see me.
Who do I prioritize seeing but people who are useful to me and the things that I want to accomplish. We are serial users of people, all of us are. The usefulness of people according to our desires creates the pecking order and the relational economy that governs this world.
We know this of people. Why do we imagine that God would be the exception to this rule?
Does God Love us Because We’re Useful? For What?
Remember again what kind of being this creator God must be.
Again consider the fact that you are at best a 100 year creature, just one of billions currently alive today living on an insignificant planet revolving around an insignificant star in a common galaxy among billions and billions of galaxies. You can’t even get a dinner meeting with the upper crust of your own country today never mind a being like we’ve just described.
You might say “well all these high status human beings have limited time because they are finite creatures. God as conceived by Christianity and other religions has no such limitation.” Which is a fair point. God could show up and spend time with all of us and it wouldn’t cost him anything. But why should he? Why doesn’t he, at least in the form we can connect with.
And why would he? He might be curious because I assume we’re more interesting than watching the dust on the surface of the moon but we have nothing that this God needs.
Why then do Americans that believe in God think him so accessible?
Tim Keller in a video describing American assumptions about God, if they believe in a God, have four assumptions about life and God.
- Americans believe there is no moral authority higher than the self. My personal happiness is the highest good.
- In the end the good of the individual always trumps the good of the community.
- If God does exist he does for our benefit to make this a good world to live in (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism)
- Whatever meaning or happiness there is must be found within this material world
This is the picture that emerges from Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart “expressive individualism”, Christian Smith’s work on American youth in Soul Searching and Souls in Transition “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism”, and Charles Taylor A Secular Age “The Immanent Frame”.
The Sentimental Evangelical Church
These assumptions permeate the American church as well as the culture in general. The book Homespun Gospel illustrates how contemporary evangelicalism is about as narcissistic and sentimental as you might imagine. In reading the book I was struck by the obviousness of the thesis. The author almost didn’t need to make his case, all he needed to do was drop in quotes.
From Max Lucado’s In the Grip of Grace: God is for you. Turn to the sidelines; that’s God cheering your run. Look past the finish line; that’s God applauding your steps. Listen for him in the bleachers, shouting your name. Too tired to continue? He’ll carry you. Too discouraged to fight? He’s picking you up. God is for you . God is for you. … We know he has a tattoo, and we know what it says. “I have written your name on my hand,” he declares (Isa. 49: 16).
From Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now: You can hold your head up high and walk with confidence knowing that God loves you unconditionally. His love for you is based on what you are, not on what you do. He created you as a unique individual— there has never been, nor will there ever be, another person exactly like you, even if you are a twin— and He sees you as His special masterpiece! … God sees you as a champion. You may not see yourself that way, but that doesn’t change God’s image of you one bit. God still sees you exactly as His Word describes you. You may feel unqualified, insecure, or overwhelmed by life; you may feel weak, fearful, and insignificant, but God sees you as a victor! 6
Brenneman, Todd M. (2013-10-31). Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (p. 2). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
You read enough of this stuff and you begin to feel like you’ve been to Leatherby’s and are so full of ice cream you’ll burst.
This also sets me up for all kinds of other problems. If I’m so wonderful and God is so loving and powerful why does let bad things happen to me?! But no one ever thinks this way (sarcasm).
It isn’t fundamentally different from a lot of other spiritual talk that comes from other non-Christian authors. Christians just feel better about it if comes from someone who makes the right evangelical professions about doctrine and the Bible.
Another Christian Voice
If Christians are in attractional mode with Americans they can put on the sentimentality stuff pretty thick. Once you’ve committed to the church, however, the rules come out.
It’s wonderful to imagine God as loving magical puppy, waiting for his master to return home only to smother you with wiggles and kisses, it’s another to imagine God as senile grandfather that says “Did you have a nice time selling drugs to school children today?”
Christians can change from sentimental, therapeutic mode to moralistic mode in a moment.
Exodus 24:3–7 (NET)
3 Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said,” 4 and Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Early in the morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain and arranged twelve standing stones—according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls for peace offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and half of the blood he splashed on the altar.7 He took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people, and they said, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken.”
Not only is the sentimental therapeutic assumption out there in the culture, but the moralistic one is as well. I regularly talk to people who are in the church and outside of it that share the same moralistic assumptions about God, the church, the Bible and reality.
The assumption basically goes like this:
- the Bible (and other religions and philosophies) give us the rules.
- If you want God to love you you’d better keep the rules
- rule breakers get punished. rule keepers get rewarded
- no one really agrees on all the rules so we get to decide which ones are really important
3 Contradictory Points
- We live in a relational world that establishes a pecking order based on how useful others are to our desires.
- We live in a culture, Christian and secular that likes to imagine each of US as an individual that stands at the center of an adoring universe.
- We imagine OTHERS live in a moral universe and are justly rewarded or punished (by God or karma) for their actions according to the rules we imagine to be most true.
Christians try to read the Bible to support our particular spin on this state of affairs. Others see Christians as do so as well.
I’m going to address these points in the order of 2, 3, 1.
It is in fact an astounding thing that the kind of being that would create this universe would in fact bother to want to interact with the likes of us. To make it more weird we should consider who exactly according to the Bible he’s choosing to interact with.
Moses and the Israelites are nobodies on the world stage. Why pick them?
If you’ve been following along with the story of the Bible, you might remember that the relationship didn’t start with them. It started with Abram. His relationship with Moses and Israel are a result of his choosing to enter into a relationship with Abram/Abraham and his promises to do something through them.
The relationship is both special with a nod towards being universal. His choosing Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and so forth was with a view towards blessing the world.
The idea of God’s love in fact comes into this story. Most of the world saw the gods as hostile and tried like crazy to find ways to placate or manipulate them. In this story the creator God is disposed to us, but we see that the relationship is complex. This is no senile grandfather who’s just happy that the kids have had a nice day. He realizes that while we are certainly an amazing species we are also deeply troubled, violent, a danger to ourselves and others. He is not only looking to heal us of the hurts we feel, he’s also looking to free us from the rebellion and brokenness we perpetuate. If contact with the human race can instruct you of anything it should be that we are capable of wonderful things and terrible things and that our path to healing and perfection will not be simple or obvious.
While the God of the Old Testament and New certainly does punish and reward, this is not the center of the story.
As I noted above this god chooses Abraham and following to do a work, a costly work through them. They are chosen not because they are moral but in order to make them moral. They are invited into the presence of God because God freely chose them and freely invited them, not as a reward for good behavior or because God needs something from them. The spoken expectations about their behavior are in a sense house rules. If they want to continue to live with this God he has expectations on their behavior according to the mission he has chosen them for.
It may seem awfully late to some of you but this week I discovered dog shaming. This is the Internet meme where someone takes a picture of a seemingly repentant dog with a sign about how the dog has offended the master.
Now I know that people are not dogs, but why do owners have expectations about the behavior of their dogs and even when the dog breaks the rules the owners don’t break relationship with the dogs?
Of course our relationship with God is far more complex and our behavior more destructive, but we understanding God giving us rules is not unreasonable nor is it that there is flexibility and variability in the rules. What we are looking for is a good living relationship. We know the senile grandfather scheme doesn’t work. We know there always needs to be rules. Why shouldn’t God create contextual rules to pursue the kind of relationship that would be beneficial to both?
Because our relational economy built on utility is so pervasive we naturally assume God is in on the deal. We try to increase our utility to God be being obedience or being loyal or being faithful and certainly then we must be able to increase the good he does for us.
There are two problems with the scheme.
- The god size problem makes it so that he doesn’t need anything from us, and use implies need.
- Using people is morally problematic. While God as maker seems to reserve the right to use people he is pretty clear that people should be loved and not used. Each of us also knows from experience that we want to be loved and not used.
What if it was actually on this point that God wants to address us.
- What if God choose to relate to us through a way, like election, that was completely opposite of the qualification pecking order we treat each other with?
- What if God in fact modeled faithful commitment to a poorly behaved and rebellious people in order to demonstrate the contrast of his kind of love from our own?
- What if God in fact wanted to not simply pamper us or indulge us but to make us qualitatively more like him in the manner of our relationships?
- We live in a relational pecking order that we use and hate at the same time. We are so completely compromised by it and complicit with it we have no realistic way of getting out of it.
- We fail even the moral codes we imagine for ourselves never mind any kind of objective code. Our failures not only harm ourselves, hurt our neighbors but should offend any kind of creator God who would want something like peace and justice from this world.
- Despite thousands of years of politics, religion, economics and everything else under the sun we remain as much a threat to ourselves and our own future as we have ever been. Humanity seems continually to confront a dead end of its own making.
Christianity says that this choosing God broke into this story in order to both reveal himself and rescue us from ourselves.
The story of God setting a table before Moses and the elders is followed by a story in Isaiah about God’s intended feast for all nations.
Isaiah 25:6–8 (NET)
6 The Lord who commands armies will hold a banquet for all the nations on this mountain. At this banquet there will be plenty of meat and aged wine— tender meat and choicest wine. 7 On this mountain he will swallow up the shroud that is over all the peoples, the woven covering that is over all the nations; 8 he will swallow up death permanently. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from every face, and remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. Indeed, the Lord has announced it!
Christianity says this was completed in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This came as complete gift. Freely chosen by God.
If this is true
- Will you accept the invitation to the table set by God?
- Will you accept his invitation to receive his love?
- Will you respond to his grace by learning to love people instead of using them?