By Alan Bean
God delights in all of us, all the time, no matter what.
We have been talking about the silence of “messy middle” churches and the need for a prophetic public theology.
Our silence, I have suggested, is a consequence of ideological diversity. Messy middle pastors can’t address issues like immigration, poverty, homelessness and wealth inequality without sparking a culture war meltdown in the pews. We have nothing to say on the big issues of the day because nothing can be safely said.
Some of my readers agree with my diagnosis of the disease but have suggested, politely and off the record, that nothing can be done. Churches can engage in ministries of charity (food pantries, soup kitchens and the like), or we can focus on issues like payday loans and human trafficking that enjoy wide, bipartisan appeal. But a big-picture prophetic public theology is a non-starter.
I have more sympathy with this counsel of despair than you might imagine. Prophetic preaching often goes wrong because it starts wrong.
Messy middle preachers can’t just announce, out of the blue, that Christians should oppose the death penalty or that the Obama administration’s policy of mass deportation stinks in the holy nostrils of God.
A prophetic public theology doesn’t begin with a predetermined set of public policy proscriptions; it begins with the rock that sends the ripples, it begins with the heart of God.
Theology reckons with the ripples created when the rock of divine revelation hits the water of human despair.
But the ripples make no sense apart from the initial bloop created when the divine rock hits the water of our world. Start with the ripples and you miss the rock . . . every time.
Progressive Christians often begin with God’s justice. Big mistake. When we speak of the “justice of God”, we naturally imagine a stern judge (complete with black robe and white wig) scowling down from a courtroom in the clouds. Nothing good can come from that.
Things get even worse when we start with the holiness of God. God’s holiness leads directly to human sin. It just makes a sense that a holy God would despise unholy people. How could it be otherwise? Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon follows from precisely this logic. A prophetic public theology that begins with God’s holiness cannot lead to the light shining in the eyes of Jesus.
Holiness and justice are ripples, not the rock.
The primordial bloop is not an abstract philosophical notion labeled “God”. The rock that sends the ripples is the love burning in the heart of God. “God is love,” the Bible tells us, and a theology that doesn’t begin here crumbles to dust.
“God is love”. Who could argue with that? But what kind of “love” are we talking about?
God’s love is passionate, white hot and smoldering.
The love of God is the essence of delight. We must begin where the Bible begins: God looks at the created world and pronounces it good. It was very good. In fact, it was downright delightful. God took delight in creation, because delight defines the heart of God. Contrary to an influential strain of Christian theology, God’s mind didn’t change. God’s delight in creation is eternal, from everlasting to everlasting.
More specifically, God takes delight in all of us, all the time, no matter what. This is the rock that strikes the water; the bloop sending forth the ripples of Christian theology.
A prophetic public theology is grounded in the eternal delight of God.
The rhetorical shift from “love” to “delight” makes us uneasy, doesn’t it. We have always been told that God loves us because it is God’s nature to do so. But the thought that God takes delight is the essence of God’s nature casts a different light on the matter. “Delight” is such a loaded word; closer to the ecstasy of Pentecostal worship than to the cool reserve of white Protestant liturgy.
A delightful God is dangerous. God delights in all of us, all the time, no matter what.
Sketch out the logical implications of that simple affirmation and you get Jesus. Or, to reverse the thought: start with the pure, unfiltered Jesus of the Gospels and you find a God who delights in all of us, all the time, no matter what.
A theology rippling from a bloop that big could swamp our world. A prophetic public theology says it already has. More on that next time.