To catch you up, you'll recall (if you read that post) that I expressed the view that while Christian a/theism shouldn't be seen as normative (i.e., I don't think it's a necessary thing to be/do) I do think that a/theism can be a helpful thing.
How is a/theism helpful? For two reasons, one epistemological the other moral.
The epistemological reason is that for those who struggle with the metaphysical claims of the Christian faith (people like me) a/theism can be a helpful approach. Doubts about metaphysics don't have to be catastrophic but can, in a/theism, be a productive theological tool, a form of apophatic theology.
From a moral perspective, as I argued in the prior post, by keeping "loving God" (care for the vertical, cultic and religious dimension of faith) tightly connected to "loving others" (care for the horizontal, human and moral dimensions) a/theism can help prevent the dangerous decoupling of the vertical from the horizontal, where religious people come to love God against their neighbors. Or, at the very least, loving God while being indifferent to our neighbors. To be sure, as I noted in the last post, there are other ways to prevent this from happening, ways that preserve the experience of the transcendent as independent from the immanent, but a/theism, in collapsing the transcendent into the immanent, is one way to keep "loving God" tightly associated with "loving others." And as I said, I tend to enjoy any theology that makes that sort of thing happen.
Okay, it's at this point where I'd like to address a common criticism that is made about what I just said. The criticism runs like this. If we collapse or conflate the vertical dimension (love of God) into the horizontal dimension (love of others) what we are left with, it is argued, is a bland and watered down liberalism. If loving God just means loving people then what we end up with is a tolerant but toothless humanism. We end up trading in our prophetic edge for a flower child ethos of "let's just love everyone!"
A related criticism here is that we end up trading in the counter-cultural politics of the Kingdom for the tools of liberal democracy. Basically, we stop becoming the church and start voting for Democrats.
The lines of this debate are pretty well-known. But I'd like to call BS on some of this criticism.
First, a clarification. It will be recalled that in my prior post I expressed the view that I wasn't too keen on a "death of God" a/theism. What I argued for was a theologia crucis focused on the weakness of God and the solidarity of God with victims and "the least of these," where the voice of God (the vertical dimension) is aligned with the voices of victims (the horizontal dimension). Theologically, I'm thinking here of things like Moltmann's The Crucified God, the work of Rene Girard, liberation theology, and Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. Biblically, I'm thinking of texts like this:
1 John 3.16-18, 4.20The point here is that when I'm talking about a/theism I'm thinking more about the "solidarity of God" than the "death of God." Though I do believe that there is a sort of "death" that has to take place to get us to this point of solidarity with victims. This is the theological death that the disciples experience when they saw the Incarnate God crucified on the cross. In witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus at Golgotha a view of God died in the the hearts and minds of Jesus's followers. And it's a death that many contemporary Christians have yet to experience. Few of us want the Crucified God and the cruciform lifestyle to which we are called. Bonhoeffer captures the view of God I'm thinking of here:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.This is the theology that sits behind many of my most popular posts, posts like Your God is Too Big, The Gospel According to Lady Gaga, and The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity. If you read (or recall) those posts you'll see the common theological thread: the cultic/religious care of God is aligned with care for others, victims and "the least of these" in particular.
Is what I'm talking about here--this Crucified God stuff--best described as "Christian a/theism"? Perhaps not, but I've tended to see it as a version of Christian a/theism because of 1) the functional outcome, the alignment of the vertical (loving God) with the horizontal (loving others), and because of 2) the fact that a sort of "death of God" is needed (Bonhoeffer's "God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross") to get us to embrace God's solidarity and identification with "the least of these." That in addition to the death--the taking up of the cross--needed to walk the cruciform path.
Okay, with that clarification made, let me return to the common criticism of all this, addressing the concern that conflating the vertical with the horizontal creates a limp liberalism and humanism, a tolerant "niceness."
Incidentally, another version of this criticism is that the identification of "loving God" with "loving others" is a caving to the Enlightenment, a swallowing of Enlightenment liberalism (what Charles Taylor calls a "universal beneficence"). The argument here is that by reducing the Christian moral witness to this universal beneficence--best exhibited in the call for "tolerance" in pluralistic societies--we hollow out the Christian faith.
But this is a non sequitur. Just because I'm conflating the vertical with the horizontal doesn't necessarily mean I'm adopting liberal humanism. Doing the former doesn't logically entail that I'm doing the latter. Why can't I do something else? In fact, that's the clarification I'd like to make.
Here's my point. When I say we must conflate the vertical with the horizontal--to form an identity relationship between the Greatest Commandments, loving God and loving others--I'm insisting that we do this in a Christian way. With Christian means toward Christian ends.
Okay, then, what would a Christian collapse of the transcendent look like?
Regarding ends, I'd say "loving others and loving God" should look like the Corporal Works of Mercy per Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting the prisoner. In fact, I'd argue that the conflation we've been talking about here is the exact point Jesus was making:
"Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"There it is: loving Jesus/God is functionally collapsed into loving "the least of these" through the corporal works of mercy.
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
But here's my point: when Jesus conflates the vertical with the horizontal in Matthew 25 no one accuses him of caving to the Enlightenment!
And why is that? Because Jesus isn't talking about a wishy-washy liberal tolerance. Jesus is talking about the corporal works of mercy. And that's my point. A Christian collapse of the transcendent, to be Christian, isn't toward liberalism but toward individuals and communities practicing the corporal works of Mercy (along with many other things).
Okay, if those are the Christian ends let's turn toward the Christian means.
Again, the criticism you often hear about strongly equating "loving God" with "loving others" is that in doing so we are eschewing the life of the church and trading it in for liberal political engagement (e.g., we start voting for Democrats to achieve "social justice").
But this is still BS. Another non sequitur. There is no logical or necessary connection that if I identify "loving God" with "loving others" that I have to trade in the life of the church for the tools of the state. Sure I could do that, and I might start voting differently, but I wouldn't describe any of that as Christian.
The point being, when I talk about "loving others" not only am I operationalizing this in a distinctively Christan way, I'm also opting for Christian means to reach those ends. Concretely, I'll eschew the political apparatus of the state and invest in the koinonia of the church.
Because as we all know, means are often conflated with the ends. To be concrete about it, I don't care how many Democrats (or Republicans) you vote for: you can't vote your way into being a cross-shaped person. Cruciform people just don't roll out of bed. Most of us would rather watch SportsCenter or Downton Abby than spend time with the homeless. Consequently, to get to Christian ends we are going to need Christan means, an intensive training and formation in the cruciform life. You can't separate Matthew 25 from Acts 4.
To summarize all this. While I understand the knee-jerk reaction and criticism about strongly identifying "loving God" with "loving others" much of this criticism is missing the mark. The criticism is assuming something about ends and means that shouldn't be assumed. Sure, there are many progressive Christians who collapse the transcendent in ways that aren't distinctively Christian, opting for things like tolerance and liberal political engagement. Those aren't horrible things, in fact I think those are good things. I just don't consider them distinctively Christian things because I don't see them as distinctively cruciform things (e.g., pouring out your life in the the works of mercy to give life to others).
So the root problem here isn't the collapsing of the transcendent per se, but with the ends and means of that collapse. I'd argue--I am here arguing--that the collapse of the transcendent that we see in theologies like Christian a/theism can be distinctively Christian, toward Christian ends (e.g., the corporal works of mercy) and with Christian means (e.g., the koinonia of the church).
Now at this point a reader might respond, "Well, if that's what you mean by 'Christian a/theism' I have fewer concerns. My worries are more with other varieties of a/theism." In light of that response, we might need to create some labels to distinguish what I'm describing here from other forms of a/theism, a/theisms that might look a lot like existentialism, Buddhism, liberal/radical theology, death of God theology, or liberal humanism.
So, to help make such distinctions let me presume to label what I'm describing here as Kingdom a/theism.
Why the word "kingdom"? Because the focus of what I'm describing here as Kingdom a/theism is more sociological than a/theisms that are more theological, philosophical and psychological.
Kingdom a/theism is sociological in that it is preoccupied with God's social location in the world. It is a form of a/theism in that it doesn't locate God in the vertical dimension but in the horizontal dimension as God stands in solidarity with the victims and 'the least of these.' Kingdom a/theism is also sociological in two other ways. Specifically, Kingdom a/theism is concerned with the social life of the Kingdom of God on earth (rather than in heaven, yet another collapsing of the transcendent), best exemplified in the koinonia of the church. And finally, Kingdom a/theism is concerned with the social witness and mission of God in the world, best exemplified when God's people are found at the margins of society practicing the works of mercy.