Can the Creator God really not stand to be around us?

I got a text the other day from a former apprentice asking about God needing to keep separate from sinful humanity. I won’t try to edit it, here’s the exchange:

Them: I’ve always believed that God needed to be separate from sin. We couldn’t enter His presence because our sin. If that is true, how is it that Jesus, fully God, could enter into this sinful world and hang out with blatant sinners? I get the Atonement. But I’m talking about the time before his death.

Me: Just like old times! In a nutshell, we probably mis-stated the way we said that stuff. The tabernacle/temple had lots of that imagery, but God is hanging out in the world and with humans all through the Old Testament. So He isn’t as sensitive or thin-skinned or hardnosed as some of our lingo has made Him sound. Think of how many times He hangs out visiting people in the Bible! Abram under the oaks of Mamre, fiery furnace with the bros, burning bush, Elijah straight to heaven etc etc. If He were as blindly furious as some theology makes Him sound none of us would stand a chance. He’s a lot kinder than we often act “He knows we are but dust.”

Me: “He knows our need, is no stranger to our weakness”. Don’t you love that?

Them: Indeed I do… So the need for separation in the OT is symbolic.

Me: Well that might take longer to unwind. Richard Rohr would say yes. Read Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?” Have you?

Them: Between the sober bar, the recovery house, and the church I am horrible at getting books in. Should I add it to the top?

Me: Get it on kindle. Read it next. U will thank me big time. Read it in little pieces at night. U will immediately draw from it.

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So, while I have no doubt the extreme ‘God-is-a-raging-fire better grab hold of Jesus’ approach has helped many people take their sin seriously (and they should), there are some pretty serious problems aligning the first line of my friend’s text to the Father Who is the Creator of All Things and notices when a sparrow falls to the earth. If my Fatherhood were modeled on God’s, and He could not bear to be in our presence due to sin (and comparing humanity’s moral failure to the God of the Universe was always a dumb trick theologically anyway – OFCOURSE a human couldn’t match God! stupid!,) I would be a pretty poor father to my kids when they screwed up. That kind of fathering has scarred and damaged many people. We do not need to protect God’s purity by saying He can’t stand to be near us since we aren’t perfect. And, explanations of the Atonement which make it sound like Jesus is our cloaking device diminish any meaningful love God has for us in a weird twist of injustice. Read N.T. Wright’s new book on the Atonement ‘The Day the Revolution Began’ (highlighted here: https://toddrisser.com/2017/06/12/a-fantastic-new-book/ ). Jesus’ incarnation indicates God can indeed stand to be around us, messed up though we be. God wants shalom for us, not just a transaction/punishment to even out the scales of justice.

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N.T. Wright: ‘the deceitfulness of sin’

“There is such a thing as ‘the deceitfulness of sin’, and it’s very powerful. You start by allowing yourself the apparent luxury of doing something small which you know you shouldn’t but which you think doesn’t matter. When it becomes a habit, you stop thinking it’s wrong at all. If the question is raised, you are ready with rationalizations: everyone does it, this is the way the world is now, you mustn’t be legalistic, no good being a killjoy. This creates a platform for the next move: here’s something else which a while ago you would have shunned as certainly wrong, but it’s quite like the thing you’ve got used to, so maybe… And before too long you’re rationalizing that as well. And once the mind has been deceived, the habit will continue unchecked.”*

I’ve seen this play out many times in so many lives. Wright has summed it up, spot on. I could not have come close to saying it any better.

N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone. Westminster Press: 2003.

Can “lack” exist in the World to Come? Un-doing Platonic assumptions…

Ever since I was a young buck in my earliest days of theological education, I figured any theology which winded up necessitating evil in order for good to exist (by comparison) was a flawed system. Likewise, any construct where the only way we could grow spiritually was for us to have to go through pain and suffering was also flawed, as it necessitated evil in order for good to develop. I haven’t changed my mind on that, but I have started to wonder about how we equate “lack” and “evil.” A Jewish friend of mine, who is a part of our church family and a follower of Jesus, got me thinking about this by some things he said this fall while we walked the Rails-to-Trails conversion between Ship and Newville. (Walking with Richard is a delight for numerous reasons, including that he looks just like pictures of Jesus, so you look really holy being seen with him).

Many, if not most, of us equate a lack of something in Creation with evil. It’s easy to see why we do this, as a lack of food in places of famine equals people starving to death, and we’ve seen many skeletal photographs of them suffering. We also tend to equate danger with evil present  in Creation,  like a Great White Shark biting you in half. We jump from this to assuming even the laws of physics – like gravity – are somehow affected, as if jumping off a five story building and breaking your leg as a result, is somehow  a manifestation of sin which wouldn’t occur in pre-sin Eden.  But my rabbinically-trained friend Richard said to me ‘there was lack in the Garden, before sin entered the world; Adam says in Hebrew “At last – this one!” when he sees Eve – the rabbis point out that this means even the ‘perfect’ world of Eden included lack. Struggle – such as to overcome lack or deficiency or scarcity – is not evil – none of those things are.’

Richard’s words set off a chain reaction in my mind which caused all sorts of things that had been swirling around to start to coalesce into some thoughts that dovetailed with his comment. If, in the Age to Come, “the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2) and “those who have been faithful with a few things will be entrusted with being in charge of many things” (Mt 25:21), it seems there is still work to do in the World to Come, and work typically entails effort, struggle, overcoming a lack or deficiency – all things we tend to associate with sin or ripple effects of evil. Do limits still exist in the Age to Come? Are there still consequences for ignoring danger implicit in the way the Universe is created?  Are our ideas about the future world so colored by Greek and Platonic ideas about perfection that we have confused categories like effort, deficiency, and lack, with evil? I wonder if process theology can help us think through some things in this area?