What is God for?
If you start with this question you are starting from below.
To me the results of Christian Smith’s survey of American youth continues to hold true. If Americans have a religion then it is shaped along the lines of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dean, Kenda Creasy (2010-06-12). Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Kindle Locations 271-277). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
God is a therapeutic, divine butler to help make this happen for those who are weak enough or unfortunate enough to need some help, and in the eyes of many foolish enough to think it will actually work.
Why God is Unnecessary
As the Baltimore riots caught the news this week the regular political and social actors took their assigned seats and interpreted the events through their filters.
- The riots are the bitter fruit of a history or racism in America
- The riots are the result of years of bad policing
- The riots are the result of years of Democratic control over the city and the state
- The riots are the result of economic calamity: globalization, high taxes, poor education, fill in the blank with the factor that you think is most important.
What is beneath all of this is the belief that if the systems: civil, social, political and economic, were all functioning property then there would be order, peace, happiness and well-being. Did you ever wonder where this assumption came from? This assumption is so deep, and so implicit that while all the voices loudly disagree over why the system has failed, none of them doubt that a system, a social order can in fact produce flourishing.
I could place a very large, probably unreadable book for many of you in your hands written by a Canadian philosopher named Charles Taylor tries to trace out how we went from the situation 500 years ago where almost everyone in Western Civilization assumed that God ran the world to today where many in Western Civilization can easily believe that the world gets on just fine without the old man.
While many individuals still look to God to solve their problems or help them feel better about themselves, when it comes to our public world our debates are about systems and we believe that if we can create, control or maintain the rights systems we can achieve within our societies the blessings we desire and even come to expect. How do we know this? Because haven’t we, in American for example, achieved this beyond what many other peoples of the world have? Don’t we often see how these things work for us but don’t work for others?
I can’t go into Taylor’s whole argument. The book is almost 900 pages. I will note a few points that go into the argument.
- It came to be believed that if certain practices could be promoted and adopted by large population that a good moral order could be established that would promote human flourishing. We assume that the order we create, with the cooperation of the masses, will achieve for us happiness, prosperity and a sense of purpose.
- Originally God was seen as the creator of this moral order, but in time (the development of Deism), it was imagined that this order was set in place by God and in fact worked well without him. In time the order itself was seen as primary and God, as a personal being who might intrude in history in the form or miracles or even answered prayer. Such interventions were seen as potentially upsetting the larger systems that God had established.
- Increasingly God, or the order in place that provided for us, was understood as being devoted to human flourishing, and this flourishing exclusively understood to mean within the real time and history that we experience today. What develops is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”.
Pointless Suffering and Harm
What might all this mean?
- Could you imagine that God might have a rule for you that doesn’t make sense as being for human flourishing?
- Could you imagine that God might bring something into your life that would seem abundantly painful and difficult and be of no instrumental service towards the ends you have for yourself?
Those of you who know your Bible might answer back and say “yes, the Bible is full of stories where God allows suffering in people’s lives that seem needless and unintelligible.”
The book of Job is a classic example. Job loses his family, his wealth and his health because of a conversation that God has between himself and Satan. Can this seem fair?
It won’t if you imagine that what God is for is to make your life good and happy and to help you feel good about yourself. It is not hard to see why “the problem of evil” becomes such a large problem during the same time period that belief in God becomes increasingly more difficult to believe.
What good is God if he isn’t here to help me when I need him?
Can God be good if God doesn’t stop all of the suffering in this world?
Well meaning Christians who are steeped in the stories of the Bible will often wade in and suggest that perhaps God has a larger plan. OK, but again, if your fundamental orientation is that what God is for is for making life good and safe and happy then nuts to whatever other thing God wants to do.
Can the Bible Be Even More Outrageous
Today we’re going to read a very well known Bible passage. If you have grown up either as seeing God as unnecessary or God as being useful for helping make my life go the way I want it to then the passage will make no sense at all. If you’re familiar with the passage I’d challenge you to try to understand it through the eyes of your friends and neighbors. Think about what Jesus is saying here.
John 15:1–2 (NET)
1 “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.2 He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit.
These two verses seem quite intelligible at first reading. Jesus is telling a little story. God the Father is like someone running a vineyard and Jesus is the true vine. This business of imagining a “false vine” is something like we talked about last week. The people he is talking to are “the branches”.
The next part is scary. All branches get cut. Those who are fruitful get pruned back, and those who are not fruitful are cut off to be burned.
If you are following this picture something is clear.
- Everyone is going to be cut. Some just cut back, others cut off.
- The goal of the owner of the vineyard is fruit, not the happiness or feelings of the vine or the branches.
Cutting for Moralistic Therapeutic Deists
Now if you imagine that God is here to make your life dandy, well then you don’t like this picture. You might say “I reject this pictures and find one that agrees better with what I want to feel about the universe.”
OK, you can do that. But if what you are really about is just finding stories that sound good to you then there really isn’t much of a point in this whole conversation. Surround yourself with people or ideas that agree with you and avoid ones that don’t. In the end, however, I’d suggest this isn’t a good way to go about life because you’ll constantly be running about from people and things that are important, not just for your happiness but also for your development.
I would also observe that despite our society’s impressive accomplishments at providing options for its citizens all such efforts eventually fall short. People will disappoint you. Accidents will happen. Money will run out. Your health will fail and you and your loved ones will die. As much as we try to avoid these realities they are true and no amount of denial or avoidance will keep them away forever.
Cutting for Exclusive Humanists
This cutting picture is also unnerving for exclusive humanism and deism. This god pictured here is a farmer who is actually at work in the vineyard. While he is at once continuing to maintain and tend his garden he is always taking an active role in its development. He is shaping the garden according to his tastes and towards the ends that he chooses. There is an image of a system in this word picture but that system is also not impersonal. This Jesus is central to this system and the people imagined within it are either totally dependent upon him or are out of the system.
One of the things our imagined order is that we see ourselves as free citizens. While we might acquire our citizenship by virtue of being born to citizens, that process is not the only way there is. If we behave in a way in keeping with the public order we have rights and our citizenship must be observed and respected.
This vineyard picture is a very different one. To lean on an image that the Apostle Paul will take up later in the New Testament we are members, not citizens. We are not interchangeable parts demanding rights and qualifying for status. We are unique yet connected towards one purpose outside of ourselves, the fruit of the vineyard.
Here is a little video where a vintner describes why and how he prunes his vines. Watching this video does not offend us in the slightest. We’re all accustomed to cutting plants and eating their fruit. If we imagine this video and imagine that the vintner is making choices about us, we are offended. We see ourselves as autonomous creatures who have rights and this image is offensive.
I am the True Vine
John 15:3–8 (NET)
3 You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up.7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you.8 My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.
There is a lot here we could talk about but I want to keep to this image and our offense at it.
Jesus says he is the “true” vine. He is saying that in life we are faced with many people and things that come to us offering life.
We began by looking at a certain approach to religion or spirituality. In that approach we are the vine and God is the fertilizer. This isn’t Jesus’ story. Jesus tells the story in reverse. He is the vine, we will have life if we remain in him.
The social order approach says that we can have life if we are dutiful cogs in the social order. Keep your head down, do your work, believe in the system, follow the rules and you will be rewarded with what you want, or perhaps your children will.
The riots in Baltimore suggest that this is not the case. The rioters also find that their rioting is part of the same system, as rioters in other places have found. Maybe a looter can get some goods in hand quickly, but they pass too.
Misery: Jasper in 28 Days
In the rehab movie “28 Days” the boyfriend of the alcoholic want to try to talk his girlfriend back into their old life.
No one adult human being is happy! People are born, they have a limited amount of time going around thinking life is dandy but then, inevitably, tragedy strikes and they realize life equals loss! The whole point of the game is to minimize the pain caused by that equation! Now some people do it by having kids, or making money, or taking up coin collecting, and others do it by getting wasted.
Gwen, the girlfriend, wisely begs to differ. Her escape pattern became obviously and painfully destructive and so she abandoned it. The problem you face, however, is that there are many more, less destructive, less painful, that in the end are equally futile.
It should be noted in Jesus’ story that he is not immune to the cutting. The New Testament sees our cuttings in him as becoming like his, fruitful.
Apart from the resurrection Jesus’ cuttings would have simply been like all other loss in this world, enlightening perhaps but not permanently fruitful. In the light of the resurrection the pruning becomes glorious because it produces wine that will never decay.
Jesus invites us into his life, to be sustained by him, to be cut like him, and to be raised like him. This is the Gospel.
Both of the systems I began with today are with us. Like the Moralistic, therapeutic deists when we are afraid we cry out to Jesus. Like the moral order paradigm that dominates our world we need structures and systems to live together in this world. We can participate in the conversation and hopefully make improvements in society.
What this text shows us, however, is that pruning is the dominant metaphor and this is reinforced by the age of decay that we live within. Sometimes when we ask for help our Lord knows the painful help we most need is not what we want. Sometimes it makes no sense to us.
All systems we invest in fall short of providing for this world. They are not the true vine.
If we remain in the vine we are pruned and used to produce more fruit. If we are in the vine even this pruning can be done to our benefit and someday for our joy and glory.