Thursday, May 22, 2008


May 22, 2008

A friend recently read the biography of Henry Ward Beecher. (The Most Famous Man in America. See entry for April 27, 2008.) It led him to question whether HWB’s rejection of the strict Calvinism of his father, Lyman Beecher, in favor of preaching God’s Love, did not somehow mirror a move, particularly in American theology, toward a kind of easy universalism and move away from traditional sexual ethics, with a missing piece being a recollection of God’s judgment. It was a comment rather than a systematic theology, but interesting on its own terms.

While I think the story of Jesus, and by extension the story of scripture is the story of God’s Love, and while I think it possible and even likely that God has and will find a way to redeem the whole of creation that was deemed ‘good’, it seems that love must leave open the possibility of its own being rejected or it is not love. In other words I find myself with the apocryphal Jesuit who said ‘I’m obliged to believe in hell. I’m not obliged to believe there is anyone in it.’ More seriously, I’m with the incomparable Karl Rahner and his idea of the possibility of an ‘ultimate No’, a fundamental rejection of all that makes for life. (The most readily available place to read this is in his Foundations of the Christian Faith, but it is not an easily accessible read and certainly not a ‘Christian primer’) I would not assume that everyone who rejects Christian faith is choosing this ultimate rejection of God, life, salvation, hope or any of the other good things that come to those who believe.

God’s judgment, then, becomes more of a consequence of who God is and the status of creation as fundamentally good, (though corrupted by sin) rather than a matter of something like ‘divine taste’. Turning away from what we can discern or discover as God’s desires or purposes (fully recognizing the limitations of anthropological language to speak of God,) will inevitably bring about God’s judgment and our being declared ‘guilty’ and in need of repentance.

A slightly different consideration of judgment is that of how we experience or receive God’s judgment. The formation of conscience is a tricky thing, but I know that I experience judgment in some way that is ‘hard wired’. It comes often as criticism and carries the immediate senses in me that something may be wrong, a relationship not as it should be or could be a sense of dread and so on. I then have to spend some time sorting out whether there is any merit to what I am receiving as judgment. Is the criticism valid? If so what part of it? Is it something I can do something about like repent and make restitution? The other day I consciously chose to ignore a person who I assumed was in need of financial assistance and experienced judgment. I was crossing to the other side of the street to avoid my neighbor. At the same time I felt assaulted because I was in this person’s line of sight as a result of opening a door to let some singers into a building for a rehearsal. I had my own agenda and it did not include what was, I predicted, a difficult encounter when I really wanted to be somewhere else. After a couple of days, I’m not carrying that personal sense of judgment as in ‘I have sinned in not talking to that man’ but am still convicted by the reality of a world or a system of which I am a relatively powerful part, that would make relationship with my neighbor so wrong before either of us have even met. There are other occasions where I experience God’s judgment in ways that do require changes that I can make individually and personally in order to live with integrity and those times remind me of my need for forgiveness and dependence on God’s grace.

I ‘m not sure how this works for someone with little or no conscience. How does such a person receive judgment? I think sometimes public declarations of guilt make a difference as in a court of law or some kind of public or communal censure. Some years ago I worked with an agency that, among other things, addressed issues of domestic violence. In those days there was little or nothing that could be done to change the behavior of male abusers, except and only in some instances, post conviction treatment. In other words the critical difference for those who were ‘treatable’ was judgment and the public declaration of guilt.

So, back to my friend’s comments and the question of whether there is a relationship between preaching God’s love, easy universalism and the abandoning of traditional sexual ethics in American life. I think there may be a connection in some senses, but that it is also true that taking God’s judgment seriously must include the possibility of rethinking our previous discernments of what God declares ‘good’ when those very judgments become part of what is breaking down the possibility of righteousness or right relation in a society. American society in particular has been able to make shifts in our understanding of anthropology that has helped overcome sins of the past. We are well on the way to revising our understanding of what it is to be human and made in the image of God with respect to slaves, people of different races, the status of women as something other than chattel and perhaps the possibility, fully recognizing that the development of sexual identity is a mysterious process for everyone almost always filled with some measure of ambiguity, that there is such a thing as a homosexual person. If we allow for that, then there is no need to make any other change in our sexual ethics (if we have decided that procreation or its theoretical possibility is not the sine qua non of sexual intimacy). We still want one partner in a relationship of lifelong fidelity and so on. We can still read the scriptures in light of this novelty in the same way that we can adjust to living in a non-biblical cosmology.

In other words cheap grace or an easy preaching of the love of God can lead to a na├»ve and easy universalism and also make the small step to alleged ‘free love’. But serious preaching of God’s love must include judgment and the possibility of the ultimate ‘no’ to life, and the very reality of judgment means that we will sometimes have to change course in the most fundamental and society-transforming ways as we seek to build for the Kingdom or Reign of God. What do you think?

Reminder to regulars: I’m not the ‘administrator’ of this blog but am told that occasionally we get submissions that are helpful but that we cannot publish because they are anonymous. My thanks to those of you brave enough to try and engage conversation in this forum. Please keep responding to one another.

1 comment:

Meghan said...

Geoffrey- since I know you are very open minded, you might want to try this on for size.

Open: Love, Sex,and Life in an Open Marriage - Jenny Block

This is a personal account of a young woman, a journalist and the daugher of a Rabbi, in her late 30s who describes her relationship with her husband and her lovers. I believe she considers herself to be 'bisexual.' I have not yet read this and it's not high on my reading list right now. What I do know is that the author believes that exclusive, monogamous marriage is 'social conditioning' that just didn't work for her. She argues that an open marriage has enhanced her marital bond. It offers an opinion or perspective. I tend to think the open marriage concept won't find widespread acceptance in our society. (If it does, then I am really worried about our culture!) It does raise, however, an interesting question about bisexuals and how they might approach marriage.

P.S. On the blog, there are links to various reviews. Publishers Weekly gave it a fair-to-good review.