Imagine, for a moment, a dating nightmare:
You awake one morning with echoes of conversations running through your mind, tidbits of self-identity shaped by some beloved ‘other’. The words reverberate, and you reflect on what your Beloved has drilled into your psyche: that you are worthless, that even the best that you have to offer is garbage (or worse!), and that you are humanly incapable of any good thing.
It’s not all bad, of course. You should remember (as the Beloved goes on to point out) that you are exceptionally lucky that someone loves you at all, since you certainly do not deserve it. What gratitude you must feel, knowing just how fortunate a person you are that the Beloved would choose to condescend to care for such a wretched individual. After all, the heart of the Beloved must be extraordinarily gracious, expansive enough to welcome you (even you!) into its depths. I am sure you feel the warmth, the subtle butterflies that come from a deeply unwarranted love freely bestowed upon your depraved self. So proclaims the Beloved. So, too, have you come to believe.
Isn’t love grand?
Now imagine that ‘the Beloved’ is God.
A Stomach-Churning Nausea
What could possibly convince us that God mirrors the verbal abuse we know to be evil in human relationships? Is not the very notion undeniably nauseating? The idea that this God of love could, even hypothetically, don the mask of the abuser should be enough to churn our stomachs. It should jostle us, challenge us, stir our ire, and move us to examine what we teach about a God who is principally defined by love. It should force us to look our theology in the face, see it for what it is, and challenge its consistency. Is it possible that such a horrific understanding of God even exists in our churches?
It is, and it does. Let me introduce you to Sarah Moon, a remarkably authentic young woman and incredibly astute writer, whose blog is willing to ask the difficult questions and squarely face our popular contemporary theology. Yesterday, she published a guest blog which deeply moved me. In it, she recounted her years of fundamentalist upbringing and the remarkable similarities between that and the abuse she also endured at the hands of one named ‘Don’.
I do not think Sarah is alone in this. The idea that we are utterly depraved, capable of no good thing on our own, is a bedrock of many theological schools of thought that I have encountered both as a minister and as a parishioner. It is also the foundation of verbal abuse. How do we reconcile the idea that we are “beautifully and wonderfully made” with the perspective that our sinful nature renders us consummately wicked? Is this what we truly have to offer a lost and hurting world?
A Fuller Picture
I don’t think it is. What we find in our nature is not an all-consuming sickness that has extinguished the last vestiges of our humanity, but rather a raging dualism that forces us to recognize and face the darker side of ourselves. It is this dualism that Paul speaks of in Romans 7, pitting the nature of “the flesh” against that of the spirit, the archetypal representations of evil and good that we all see within ourselves.
It is the former, the sinful nature, which threatens to rob us of our humanity. The message of the Gospel is that Christ offers a final victory, a restoration of what it means to be human, a slow and steady transformation through which the workings of that darker nature are first forgiven and then overcome.
This is humanity’s hope. In a world where evil is rampant and visible, we have the promise of restoration. Where brokenness reigns in us, we find our master craftsman in Jesus. We are reminded that when we were created to bear God’s image God did not say “it is mediocre,” nor did He even say “it is good”; rather, in an unparalleled moment of beauty, He declared us “very good,” the pinnacle of creation itself.
A theology which begins with the Fall in Genesis 3 misses the bedrock of Christianity, and easily moves to label us all nothing but wicked and worthless. Christian theology does not begin there, however; it begins at the beginning, in Genesis 1, as a “very good” creation who bore the image of our creator then and still bears it today. We are loved not because God condescended to indulge the worthless; we are loved because we were created to be loved, because God desired and intended to love us from the very beginning, because we were fashioned with intrinsic value as divine image-bearers in the midst of a glorious creation.
We are loved because we are worth loving… and that reveals a very different sort of Beloved.
Have you ever experienced harmful theology? Share your story with us below…
Image Credit: Eflon
EDIT: This morning on her blog, Sarah published on article detailing why she is a Unitarian Universalist. While I very much argue for a soft inclusivism, I am not a UU. Nevertheless, I stand by what I said in this article: we need people willing to ask these questions, to call the church to account, and to openly and honestly wrestle with the more difficult aspects of our faith. Whether you agree with the UU or not, it would still be highly beneficial to check in on Sarah’s blog once in a while, and allow her vulnerability and authenticity to challenge the way we think about our faith.