Why is so much Christianity so often so mean?

I am in a Christian gathering. The sponsorship of  refugees from Syria comes up. The immediate response is, “We don’t want those Muslims in our country. Why don’t they go to countries where they will fit in among their own kind of people?”

It takes my breath away.

Mean Christianity divides the world into “them” and “us”.

“Them” are the bad guys, the people who do not look like “us”, speak like “us”, or view the world like “us”. They do not belong because they are different and do not appear to share precisely the values we cherish.

“Us” are those who belong to the small – usually quite small – group who understand life precisely as we do. They share our values and express them using the same language we use. We are comfortable among “us”. There is no threat when only “us” are in the room. We know what to expect; everything is familiar; the community feels safe.

How did the expansive welcoming vision of Jesus ever get to this tight tribal place? How did we come to believe that we have the exclusive market on truth, that we alone know what is right?

The answer is fear and its close cousin, insecurity.

Fear drives us into the narrow restricted little world where there is room only for our kind of people. Insecurity keeps us locked in this airtight room that can view life only through the lens of our narrow vision.

We inhabit this pinched world because we fear difference. We hold to our rigid, dogmatic definition of the “truth” as the only accurate version of reality because any other view makes us insecure about our view of the world. The possibility that “their” view may contain truth seems to call into question my understanding. Therefore, “their” view must be attacked and rejected.

The sad outcome of this judgmental approach is that it makes it impossible to see truth in unexpected places. God becomes so small that we can only imagine the Spirit at work in the places we prescribe. God’s truth is captured only in our formulations, dogmas, expressions, and sacred texts, no where else. This “god” is vastly more limited than the vision of Jesus who compared God’s way of working in the world to the wind:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Jesus constantly saw God’s work in unexpected – indeed to some people unacceptable – places: Luke 4:27; 10:33; 17:18; John 4:27.

Even the Apostle Paul found God at work in surprising ways:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  (Acts 17:22,23)

God is worshiped in “unknown” places beyond the parameters of my particular dogmas.

Wind cannot be confined. Wind cannot be contained, restricted, or controlled. Wind does not honour humanly manufactured boundaries and distinctions. Wind can never be captured in any rigid formulations the human mind might ever construct.

According to the Apostle Paul, the work of this Spirit of God is seen in

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and inner strength. (Galatians 5:22,23)

These are the signs of God’s work. Meanness, arrogance, judgment, and exclusion do not appear in the New Testament as hallmarks of God’s presence and action at work in anyone’s life.

It is curious and unsettling that a faith anchored in Paul’s injunction to

Let your gentleness be known to everyone (Philippians 4:5)

has so often deteriorated into harshness, name calling, and blatant contempt for those who may not entirely share our view of the world.

Not many people are likely to be won to the “meekness and gentleness of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:1) by the harshness and pride that so often passes for Christian “truth.” It may be that, I need to allow the surprising Wind of God’s Spirit to carry me to that place of repentance where I look deeply into my heart and ask how much my spirit reflects the beauty that was born in Jesus.

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The idea that God cannot be confined by human concepts and formulations (the “apophatic” tradition) is found deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition. The Bible and Christian tradition take a generally more humble view of our capacity to know the whole truth than characterizes much of what sadly passes for Christianity today.

Here are a few examples that point to the mysterious nature of God:

Exodus 24:15-18    Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Exodus 33:17-23    The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18. Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19. And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21. And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22. and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23. then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

2 Chronicles 5:13-6:1, 18  It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14. so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. 6:1 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would reside in thick darkness. 6:18 But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”

Job 26:13, 14    “By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. 14. These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?”

Psalm 77:19   Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.

Psalm 97:1, 2  The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! 2. Clouds and thick darkness are all around him.

Ecclesiastes 3:11   He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Isaiah 8:17  I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.

Isaiah 45:15  Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel the Savior.

Mark 9:5-7  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6. He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

John 20:17a  Jesus said to her (Mary Magdalene), “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Romans 11:33, 34a  O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34. “For who has known the mind of the Lord?

I Corinthians 2:4, 5  My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5. so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

I Corinthians 13:12   For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Ephesians 1:20, 21   God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21. far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Philippians 2:9  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

Colossians 1:15  He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God.

CHRISTIAN TRADITION

Malherbe, Abraham J. & Everett Ferguson (trans.). Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses. NY: Paulist Press, 1978. (4th Century CE)

When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension. 95

Luibheid, Colm (trans.). Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. NY: Paulist Press, (5th/6 th Century CE)

Pseudo-Dionysius The Divine Names

If God cannot be grasped by mind or sense-perception, if he is not a particular being, how do we know him? This is something we must inquire into.

It might be more accurate to say that we cannot know God in his nature, since this is unknowable and is beyond the reach of mind or of reason….the most divine knowledge of God, that which comes through unknowing, is achieved in a union far beyond mind, when mind turns away from all things, even form itself, and when it is made one with the dazzling rays, being then and there enlightened by the inscrutable depth of Wisdom. 108, 109

Anonymous. Ira Progoff (trans.). The Cloud of Unknowing. NY: Dell Publishing, Co., (14th Century CE)

of God Himself no man can think. I would therefore leave all those things of which I can think and choose for my love that thing of which I cannot think. And why is this so? He may be well loved, but he may not be thought of. He may be reached and held close by means of love, but by means of thought never. 72

love may reach God in this life, but not knowledge. And as long as the soul dwells in this mortal body the accuracy of our understanding in perceiving spiritual things, most particularly God, is mingled with some manner of fantasy. 82

Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. NY: Image Books, 1965. (20TH Century CE)

The Christian contemplative is aware that in the mystical tradition both of the Eastern and Western Churches there is a strong element of what has been called “apophatic theology.” This “apophatic” tradition concerns itself with the most fundamental datum of all faith…the God who has revealed Himself to us in His Word has revealed Himself as unknown in His intimate essence, for He is beyond all merely human vision… Christian faith too, while of

course concerning itself with certain truths that have been revealed by God, does not terminate in the conceptual formulation of those truths. It goes beyond words and ideas and attains to God Himself. But the God who in a certain sense is “known” in the articles of faith is “known as unknown” beyond those articles. 185, 186

Johnston, William. The Mysticism of The Cloud of Unknowing. Trabuco Canyon, California: Source Books, 1967. (20TH Century CE)

definitions, being expressed in human language, are imperfect; they are inadequate to contain perfectly the great truths that they express… conceptual formulations are little, insofar as they cannot exhaust the reality they express; they are great, as truly pointing to something that is infinite…words and sentences used about God in theology and Scripture are great because they are true, but they are little because so imperfect….the things of God are totally removed from any concepts or images we may have of them. 62, 63

Grant, Patrick. A Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Western Mysticism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1985.

If it is true, as the mystics claim, that there is knowledge beyond discourse and vision beyond images, then such knowledge is impossible to describe, and it is often compared to a kind of darkness. Thus we are to discover at the heart of our abandonment in the spiritual night a wholly other kind of apprehension, which so enables us to find our way around in the dark that the heart of darkness itself becomes bright. The mystics are fond of images suggesting how visionary knowledge is a brilliantly intense night, a darkness so bright that it dazzles. 223

ROWAN WILLIAMS

God can never be contained in human concepts. Moses ascends into a cloud and darkness beyond the scope of intellect, where God offers himself directly to the vision, without the intervention of any form or idea. Wound of Knowledge, 32

Illumination is the running-out of language and thought, the compulsion exercised by a reality drastically and totally beyond the reach of our conceptual apparatus. Illumination is an entry into that ‘contradiction’ at the heart of Christian belief represented by Jesus on the cross. Thus John insists on the need to let go of cerebral activity when this point is reached. Wound of Knowledge, 169

A theology of the risen Jesus will always be, to a greater or lesser degree, a negative theology, obliged to confess its conceptual and imaginative poverty – as is any theology which takes seriously the truth that God is not a determinate object in the world. Resurrection, 84

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