A God who Pushes Back

In response to a NYT article about Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church, my friend Jim writes “I personally find it a bit of a mystery that some people find comfort and hope in that sort of theological framework”.  By contrast, I can totally understand it. I understand it, but disagree with it.  My experience as a Christian, and a little healthy doubt, has lead me to reject my one-time fascination for hard-core, predestined-from-the-womb Calvinism.  But, while I’m not comfortable with a Calvinistic god who is completely arbitrary — one who has no real way of showing love — I doubt an individualized god who looks like a friendly neighbor who practices a “live-and-let-live” philosophy. It seems the Mars Hill congregation does not want a god who will smile on their imperfections, but what they’ve been offered, what they’ve found to fill their “God-shaped hole”, is indeed not anthropomorphic.  It is true that anthropomorphizing God, making him like our tolerant neighbor, is dangerously wrong-headed.  But just because we have an incomprehensible god does not mean that we have a view of the right one. A hint of what is so attractive about this “New Calvinism” can be found in Dostoevsky:

Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. (source)

Mars Hill parishioners have pursued this false freedom and found it wanting.  Naturally, they turn away from that.  Of course, we are always in danger of following the wrong leader, but especially so when we feel weak and are offered something that looks unbending. By way of contrast, I offer this quote from Father Stephen.  His whole post is an excellent defense of un-individual, Trinitarian Christianity, but this is quote seemed most relevant:

An excellent example of this occurred once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.


Its great when a weblog post on software design helps me understand religious movements. Even though I had peripheral knowledge of Emergence, I hadn’t made the connection between it and the “Emerging Church” movement, but coming across the term in an article that asks us to consider that formal methods of software design just don’t cut it. Back in my senior year of college I did a course on Chaos Theory.  I didn’t get as much out of it as I should have, but the one thing that stood out to me was how the Mandelbrot Set came from such a simple equation.  Who could predict that Z = Z2 + C could produce such complex, unending beauty? Often, when I read about the emerging church, I think “You guys are trying to do what the Orthodox have already accomplished” and now I know why. “In philosophy, systems theory and the sciences, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” (to quote Wikipedia).  This is why the formal specification of software is so hard.  Formal systems have a nice tidy set of rules and, from those, try to build complex systems.  But simple rules, applied in just a slightly different way lead to dramatically different results.  The simple rules deceive us into thinking that we have a controllable output, that we have something predictable. My experience in the Protestant church came to a head when I couldn’t reconcile all the positive statements about God (“God never breaks his promises”, “God’s justice must be satisfied”).  That, and all the little “facts” about God seemed like so much hubris. Orthodoxy’s negative theology was really attractive.  Instead of making definitive statements about who God is, we only say what we know God is not. I’m guessing the Emerging Church people see the same thing.  They see rationalists creating a bunch of rules for God and say “Hey, the church is Emergent!  All those little facts and figures help build a big Emergent Church!” So now I understand.  The emergent church isn’t “emerging” in the sense that it is “coming out”.  The Emergent Church is just saying “All those little simple little things you know about God and the Church don’t mean that they’re simple.”

The Failing Church

Father Stephen writes:

When we look across the Christian scene, however, we should be accurate in what we see: failure. Not by counting numbers (they may tell us very little), but by how well Christians in fact show forth the faith that is within them. That the Church is a mess is a good description of history. The Catholic Church says one thing, but has a hard time finding a parish that actually believes and practices the magisterium of the faith. Protestants have launched into a sea of splintering that can only be justified by positing a deficient ecclesiology. The Orthodox, despite the accuracy of their historical claims, remain in the backwash of collapsing empires (both the Byzantine and the Russian). … The failure of the Church, to put it clearly, is a result of works – a triumph of flesh over Grace.

Read the whole thing (plus the comments, which include how the Orthodox fail the poor) and then read Why I am not Concerned.