Grace Emerges

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Forward Progress 3: Human Nature and Purpose

Forward Progress: 
Lessons and Trends in Progressive Christian Faith
by Brad Duncan

A 6-part series on the church, faith and theology,
and how they can move forward into the next generation. 

Human Nature and Purpose

There's something wrong with our view of humanity when we love the world less than God does.

In the previous two articles I've written about how Jesus was the Incarnation of God on Earth and brought good news to the world.  The best way to understand God's nature is to see how Jesus demonstrated it -- he renounced judgment, replacing the idea of appeasing an angry God through ritual and sacrifice with the establishment of his own authority to forgive sins and to liberate humankind from darkness.  Seeing God through Christ helps us better imitate God, so that we can bring good news to others and can be a source of goodness and compassion to them.  To receive this good news and participate in it does not require that we find a way to please God through faith or actions, but rather that we respond to God's call to relationship with him and love for others.  This view was contrasted to the traditional gospel of grace mixed with judgment.

With this non-traditional view of God comes a non-traditional view of humanity.  Was humanity rejected by God after initially being created in his image?  Did we fall from our status as God's elect when we were created to now be God's rejects because of sin?  Therefore, is redemption and the gospel a rescue from rejected status to accepted status?  Is God rescuing us from himself, from his own wrath?  More specifically, am I and every human on Earth rejected by God if we fail to meet his conditions?

The traditional gospel depends on an understanding of humanity as having a low status, due to the fall from God's grace.  With low status comes poor decisions, an evil nature, a propensity toward selfishness, violence, and wars.  With low status also comes poverty, sickness, pain, and tyranny.  The concept of low status is our way of explaining the ugly, messy world we live in, and the selfishness we see in ourselves and in others.  Through low status we see our need for God and for redemption.  The contradiction is that we see God's character as adversarial, providing both the condemnation and the redemption, both the curse and the blessing.

Once again the message of low status is one of judgmental grace, both good news and bad.  For someone that has never heard of Christ, we first have to tell them the bad news that they are rejected and unacceptable, so they can then accept the good news of grace to be made acceptable again.

The new, non-traditional, view must also address our need for God, the status of humanity, and what it means to be redeemed, but it starts from a different point of view which emphasizes the creative work of God:
  • God created humanity, in his own image, as a creative work.  In fact God keeps creating, building and designing goodness.  
  • God's nature as shown by Jesus is not adversarial towards us.  God is purely on our side, doing the redemptive work promised of the Messiah.
  • God further reflected his nature in the teachings of Christ, showing us how to imitate his nature and how to bring good things into the world as his children.  This became the foundation of his kingdom on Earth where his will is done and where his good news is spread to the ends of the Earth.
In short, rather than explaining the messy world we see around us as the result of a discipline action by God and as a curse we deserved, a messy world which was created to be the ideal of perfection but failed like a flopped chocolate cake, instead we should look at the world as it is.  God created this.  What is it?  Rather than believing that God created something beautiful but now he can't stand the smell of the place, it is better to open our eyes and accept the world we live in as the creative work of God, past, present and future.  But it's still messy!  How is that possible?  Surely God only likes non-messy things?  No, God can handle the smell, handle our fits, handle our lack of faith, and handle our selfishness.  Out of messy, he creates beauty.  We are the stuff of dust and clay, but we are also the spiritual descendants of the God who made the heavens: his children made in his likeness.

This view also attempts to address several open-ended questions about the human condition:
  • Can humans make good decisions? Can humans find the truth?
  • What is sin? What is evil?  Why do we face evil daily from ourselves and from others?  Is there a parallel war happening on a spiritual plane between God and the devil?  If so, how does that affect us?
  • What is freedom?  What does liberation/salvation free us from?  What does it free us to do?
  • How does God interact with human needs?
  • What's so important about the Holy Spirit and our spiritual nature?   
This is clearly too much ground to cover and I've written on these topics elsewhere so I can just refer to other articles for the in-depth look at these questions and try to just summarize the heart of the matter below.  Here are some links:  The Human TrinityOur Decision Engine: Capacity, Need and Opportunity,  Fuel for the Decision EngineThe Responsibility to DecideCalling Open Minds: The Kingdom of God Needs You.

Pointing Out the Flaws
Traditional theology (from evangelical and many other traditions) tends to see both the beginning and end of humanity through a polarized view, based on an ideal human condition that lies in contrast to the non-ideal (messy) human condition we see around us and within ourselves.  Seeing in such black and white terms, we seek to return the human condition to this ideal state of perfection.  Since God is perfect and unchanging, his creation must be perfect. The polarization of heaven and hell is also very black and white: only perfect people can be in heaven so everyone else must be in hell.  These are the idealized end points, the beginning and the end.

But in the middle point not too long ago, Jesus came to Earth as a man.  He lived and we experienced him.  He was tangible, real, human, and we experience him today in a tangible way through the written narrative in the Bible and a rich human history of relating to Jesus after the Bible narrative (not to mention the spiritual experience through prayer and the Holy Spirit).  The middle point is not as polarized as the ends.  In the middle point we learn that Jesus loved the unlovely.  He resisted the religious.  He taught that our view of God was upside down: for example rather than "an eye for an eye", we should practice "turn the other cheek" and loving enemies.  Jesus taught us a non-intuitive, non-polarized gospel, which in many ways we did not understand and still do not understand.  Should we continue to answer our most important questions about our existence and purpose using idealized notions of the beginning and the end?  Or should we look to Jesus as our lighthouse?  He sheds light on the past work of God, back to our creation, and he shows the way forward, toward a kingdom designed by God.

Did Jesus polarize and idealize the human condition into good people and bad people, good news and bad news?  The only thing that Jesus polarized was the authority of man vs. the authority of God.  When man tries to save himself through being good enough, he actually stands counter to God's goodness, actually making himself God, judging mankind and building his own kingdom.  God's kingdom is defined in the Lord's prayer, as a place where God's will is done on Earth, not man's will!  In this messy place, as part of God's continued creative work, God's will can be done.  If we look through the lens of Jesus we just don't see our low status, we see our high status as God's creative work.

The theology of exactly how Jesus saved us by dying on the cross is called atonement theory.  With the theory of low status of humanity, we must explain the work of Jesus as rescuing humanity from an angry God who must be appeased.  Alternate theories also abound to explain how humanity is rescued from low status to acceptable status.  Man was ransomed from the devil or rescued from the devil's prison (where maybe he was placed by God due to the fall?)

However if we just look to Jesus these theological gymnastics are not needed.  The death of Jesus on the cross was part of the continued redemptive, creative work of God, who keeps rescuing us and creating goodness in the world in spite of ourselves.  To be our lighthouse, to build his kingdom, and to show us once and for all his unconditional love for us, God sacrificed himself for us.  He showed us his heart, his grace, his passion for us, and he showed us the way to follow.  Atonement, redemption, salvation, the gospel, is simply Jesus, being God, and doing his own will.  God chose to die for us.  Period.

In summary of why we no longer need to believe in Judgmental Grace: through the lens of Jesus, rather than the lens of idealized beginning and end points, we see God demonstrating grace while liberating us from judgment.  God is okay with our imperfection and mistakes.  If not for these flaws, grace would not be needed!  In fact grace would cease to exist in such an idealized state.  In fact, hope, faith, and freedom would all be useless and meaningless in such an idealized state.  And what is love, if no longer a choice?

What's easier to believe?  Beginning and end points that have no connection to the reality we experience every day?  Or the middle point of Jesus joining us in the messy reality and showing us the way of grace?

To digress, I would point out this this debate is about God and not really about the devil.  In both views (Judgmental Grace and Non-judgmental Grace), the evil in the world is not fully blamed on the devil but rather on man's flaws and tendency to believe the devil's lies.  The devil has a role as deceiver, showing us a foolhardy view of a better life if we pursue our own concerns, if we oppose the kingdom of God and if we try to find happiness by competing with God.  He shows us partial truth with a false promise of a good outcome coming from bad decisions.  In both views, free will and choices of good vs. evil are part of our human experience.  Neither view really explains the devil and God's rationale for allowing him to exist in the first place and have authority on Earth, except to acknowledge that he has a role to deceive mankind.  Spiritual beings and the spiritual realm are far from our understanding, and there's nothing we can do about it, which is probably a good thing!  All we can see is what is revealed as part of our own story: the narrative of God interacting with humanity.

What We Can Learn
Figure 2 shows that in the kingdom of God, God works with humanity to bring good things.  He works with human nature.  He meets its need.  He cures its sin.  He breathes purpose into it.

To address some of the open-ended questions:

  • Can humans make good decisions? Can humans find the truth?
    • God made us like himself with a strong and multi-faceted capacity to think and make choices.  
    • God himself provides the truth for us to follow.  The devil is the deceiver. If we listen to the truth we can make choices that bring good things into the world.  If we make poor choices, we bring evil things into the world.  For example, Do I love my children, or abuse them?
  • What is sin? What is evil?  Why do we face evil daily from ourselves and from others? 
    • The world is our opportunity.  Because we live in a world full of flaws, we have the opportunity, rather responsibility, to use all of our God-given capacity to make good decisions.  We have before us good choices and bad.  Which will we choose?
    • Sin is going against God's heart and God's nature.  Choosing to be our own master, to elevate our own authority, to build our own kingdom.  Sin is going against God's character, doing things that God would NEVER NEVER do because it's so unlike him.  
    • What would God NEVER do?  Hate his enemies.  Hate his children.
  • What is freedom?  What does liberation/salvation free us from?  What does it free us to do?
    • Freedom is the place we go when we are accepted as we are.  When judgment ceases and love starts.  Freedom is life without bondage, without control from others, without tyranny or oppression.  
    • Freedom is the ability to do good things.  Out of our capacity to make decisions, our opportunity to fail or succeed, our exposure to good choices and bad, our free will to love or to not love -- out of this mess of humanity comes freedom to live.  Freedom to rise to our potential and be a part of the kingdom.
    • Freedom is a cause we can fight for.  We can stand up against injustice and liberate others, joining in God's redemptive work.  We can start be eradicating judgment in our own hearts and offering freedom to those around us.
  • How does God interact with human needs?  What is the role of the Holy Spirit?
    • The Incarnation of God did not stop when Jesus ascended.  Jesus left the Holy Spirit, his own spirit, as our partner in the kingdom.  We are not begging God to "come by here" and do good work!  Rather, we are acknowledging his presence and asking if we can participate in his good work.  God is working to resolve the discontinuities in the world, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, peace to the oppressed.  
    • God is working in us and answers prayer -- in particular, God is not deceived.  When we can't see the truth, he can.  The Holy Spirit guides us and shows us truth.  With truth lighting our way we have all the help we need to choose good over evil.
The Church in Transition
What does God really want and why did he create us?  Whatever those things are, do them.  Stop doing other things.  Bring good things into the world, whoever you are!

The church can change, by eradicating the polarized thinking that says mankind is garbage, unable to make good decisions, unable to see truth, unable to understand God.  We can see the middle point, which is Jesus, rather than the end points of idealized humanity vs. low humanity.  We can replace this thinking with appreciating God's creative work to make old things new, to help the hurting, and to make the ugly beautiful.  God loves to create!  He can't stop, and we can't stop him!  Instead we can join him.


Forward Progress: "I am the way, the truth and the life.  Come to the Father through me!  Find the good life at home in my kingdom, where God's will is done, where your needs matter, and where forgiveness reigns." -- Jesus

Other Articles in This Series:

Figure 1.  The gospel should be based on the authority of Christ rather than a mix of grace and judgment.

Figure 2.  The story of humanity's interaction with God continues with us.  God made us, we need him, he helps us.  We relate to and with God, and this relationship brings deep purpose to our lives.

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