Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Prolepsis and Future God

This 5 minute video presents 3 ideas that come together in a powerful way.

Here is my most adventurous and experimental theology.

  1. Christ as Prolepsis
  2. God as Future
  3. Process of each moment

Please let me know what you think and how I can tighten up the concepts (as I will be presenting this to a live audience soon)

Pastoring the Process

Last week was a fun one for me! On top of interacting with concerns of Roger Olson and Tony Jones about process thought, I have received amazing emails, tweets, blog and Facebook comments.

Keep in mind that while I am familiar with process thought, I don’t subscribe to it hook-line-and-sinker … so I am a good person to ask these kind of questions to.


Here are the 4 biggest themes that emerged from those interactions.

How does Process affect your field of Practical Theology?

The first thing to understand that Practical Theology is kinda sociology with a theological lens. We use interviews, case studies & ethnographies (qualitative methods) to investigate how religion is lived out on the ground.

So a Practical Theologian does not need to subscribe to any particular school of thought per se. We do have to locate ourselves philosophically but no one approach is required.

Having said that … I am primarily concerned with pastoral theology and as a pastor, process theology has deeply impacted the way that I think, believe, lead and facilitate my interactions with the community of faith.

Doesn’t it seem weird to base so much on the philosophy of one guy in the 20th century?

Not exactly. Once you understand that all of christian history and specifically western theology is based and embedded with philosophy from day 1. If you don’t know how the Gospel of John or the Nicene Creed is laced with philosophical frameworks, this will be eye-opening to you.

Having said that, the philosophical approach that come from thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead is notable in a number a ways. It is naturalist (vs. empiricist) and it is advantageous in the areas of:

A) creation-care

B) give and take (symbiotic) relationship we have with the earth & the rest of creation

C) the realistic (not idealistic) way that things are after the industrial revolution

D) emergent thought and evolutionary history

When you put that all together, THEN add the fact that Whitehead had a Bible – what you end up with is an approach that is far more compatible with the way that the world actually works than anything we have inherited from centuries past.

Does it really matter?

100% Yes! Are you kidding me? When people question the nature of God’s power – why God doesn’t do the things that a god is supposed to do – when God, who could do anything if ‘he’ wanted to, doesn’t do them … both the world and the faith that we have inherited doesn’t make any sense.

Giving people both a permission to ask questions and a framework to process different approaches is a gift in the 21st century.

There is no school of thought that I have found more fruitful in engaging than process. Engaging biblical scholarship is a great starter. Asking big question about the nature of human violence (like memetic theory) is a catalyst. The pièce de résistance is found an alternative framework that not only asks different questions but allows for different answers.

Does it change how you pastor? 

Absolutely! If the nature of God’s power is not coercive but persuasive, then it affects everything.

  • The way you view administration
  • The way you counsel people
  • The way you preach
  • The way you recruit help
  • The way you pray
  • The way you empower & delegate
  • The way you do hospital visitation
  • The way you respond to criticism
  • The way discipleship is defined*
  • The way the community conceives of itself and participates
  • The way you perceive outsiders

I actually can not think of one aspect of church-life that is untouched  by this upgrade in operating-systems.

As you can tell, I am having a blast, so feel free to keep the conversation rolling! What else do we want to address? 

* In last week’s response “Is God Unique?” I made the case – based on the Advent podcast with John Cobb – that following Jesus in discipleship looks a little different. 

Jesus was as open to and as faithful to the will of God as Mother Theresa was to her calling, Francis of Assisi was to being Francis, maybe even Buddha was to be Buddha … That is not what makes Jesus unique.

WHAT makes Jesus unique is WHAT God called Jesus to. It is possible that all of these people were equally open & available to god as Jesus was. The difference is what God called Jesus to.

Jesus played a unique role in human history. No has ever – or will ever – play that role. What God did in Jesus has impacted all of humanity. Jesus is unique.

NOW having said that … the art of following Jesus is being open to and available to the presence of God the way that Jesus was open to available to the will of God is Jesus’ life.

Being like Jesus is not doing what Jesus did (walking on water) but being available to God the way the Jesus was available to God. This is discipleship.

Process, Cicadas and Time

Three things have been rattling around in by cranium while I was away this Spring.

1. The cicada’s came back. Every 17 years the Periodical Cicada Brood II emerges to rollick in the Eastern half of the U.S. for a brief but frenzied round of sex and gluttony. We will not see them again for 17 years. It is a phenomenon that always garners it’s fair share of bewilderment and awe.


It is appropriate that this baffles most of us. We are set to think in perennial terms and oddities like this don’t fit that narrative. Underneath the soil right now is a massive swarm that we will not hear a peep from until 2030.

2. I was listening to an episode of Smiley and West’s weekly radio show while I was fixing up my parent’s house. The guests were Maceo Parker and Bill Ayers (interesting mix eh?). It was pointed out that sometimes, things just take time. Ayers’ example: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. It was not until 1963 that the march in Birmingham took place.

Ayers points out that not everything happens in quick succession. He said this in reference to the Occupy flare-up last year and why it appears that not much has come out of them.

3. Tony Jones had the response to Jack Caputo’s address at the Subverting the Norm conference. Point 2 of Tony’s 13 points was :

Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.

I know that Process thought will always be on the periphery. It will never be mainstream… and I am o.k. with that. Some things just work better as ‘catchers’ on the outside of the whirlwind.

Here is the thing: many Mainline, progressive or emergent church expressions don’t make that many converts. Some may even think that evangelism is wrong/trite/passé/ or coercive.

You know who does make a lot of converts? The evangelical-charismatic branch of the family. They do.

But not all of their kids or converts find the theological answer persuasive or satisfying after a while. So there is always a large supply of folks cycling out of the evangelical spin-cycle looking for better frameworks and answers … and it just so happens that Process thought can provide that.

Process thought interacts with both Biblical Scholarship and Science with flying colors.

Process even has a built-in interface for engaging other religions. It’s perfect for the pluralism that our world and time are calling for.

Yes – you have to learn some new words and it is admittedly clumsy to transition into from a classical approach. We all acknowledge that. But … and I can not overstate this … if your unhappy with the frameworks that you inherited, what have you got to lose?   Your faith?

If the alternatives are to either:

A) close your eyes and choke-down the medicine


B) walk away from the faith altogether

Then what is the harm is picking up some new vocabulary and concepts that allows you to navigate the tricky waters of the 21st century?

I mean, what else are you going to do for the next 17 years while we wait for the cicada’s return?


I have been enjoying 2 big books while I was away:

Modern Christian Thought (the twentieth century) and Essentials of Christian Theology – both have significant sections of Process influence.

Cicada Picture: H. Scott Hoffman/News & Record, via Associated Press

This is the best that God can do

It is fascinating what happens to conversations when you take away one word.  Words are like little suitcases – people put understandings or concepts in them and then carry them around as self contained units. Its so easy! They come with these convenient little handles and you can you pack so much meaning in and mean so much when you just use one little word.

This can be especially dangerous in theological conversations. That one word can take paragraphs and pages to unpack. Sometimes it can be a very liberating experience to take a word off the table. Just say ‘if you can’t use that word, how would you talk about this?’ It is an amazing exercise.

 A few weeks ago I had fun asking the question “what if you can’t use the word ‘demon’ – how would you talk about these same things?”  I am suspicious that we who read the Gospels and New Testament don’t mean the same thing when we say ‘demon’ or ‘devil’ as those in 1st century region of the Mediterranean did. 

 So it was with great interest that I had an amazing conversation this past weekend with a group of very intelligent, but non-theological folks. We were talking about God and the subject of evil came up. What was fascinating is that I did not place restrictions on the conversation, it happened organically – they just don’t use the usual words! Never once did I hear

  • Theodicy
  • Omnipotent
  • Kenosis

I started thinking “what if we had this conversation without those three words?” They are great words, and that is part of the problem! People assume that they know what is packed into the words and so they throw them around with ease (they come with convenient handles after all).

Here was my opening statement that sparked the debate:

God is doing all that God can do right now in the world. What you are looking at is the best that God can do. God is not holding back. God is doing God’s best to make the world a better place that more conforms to the divine will.

You can understand why that set off sparks. The questions, comments, and concerns started flowing.  Is God more powerful than God lets on? Has God restricted Godself? Has God willingly emptied Godself of some of God’s power?  Can God pick up that power anytime God will and God is just choosing not to? 

 There are specifically 3 groups that have shaped my thinking on this: 

  1. The Kenotic CrowdMultmaniacs mostly, but more generally people who think that God is who we have always said God to be but that some ‘emptying’ (see Philippians 2) or self-limitation has happened. God is ‘all powerful’ or ‘all mighty’ but has just chosen to act this way (free-will, etc.)
  2. The Process Perspective – Between Marjorie Suchocki, John Cobb, Catherine Keller, and Philip Clayton they have this thing covered. I thank God for Process as a conversation partner.
  3. The Caputo Contingent – with his book ‘The Weakness of God’ John Caputo shook some of us to our core and rocked our ‘foundation’.  What if God’s strength was shown in weakness?

 I have become very comfortable with the possibility that world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.

What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?

What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?

Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?

What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?

What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?

So we don’t have to ask ‘why isn’t God stopping the genocide in Africa’. God can’t. It’s just not how it works. God is doing what God can but we are not cooperating.

Now, some will say “No, God could do more but has chosen to limit God’s self” or “God has emptied some of God’s power and given it to us as co-creators and free agents – we are misusing our power. It’s not on God.”

 I just want to throw out the question “What if this is the best that God can do?” I am comfortable with that.  

Looking forward to your thoughts!  All I ask is that you try not to use ‘theodicy’, ‘kenosis’, or ‘omnipotent’ without unpacking them.  

trying to making sense of the miraculous

This is a re-post from a blog that I did at Homebrewed Christianity. I wanted to display here in preparation for a series of upcoming posts.  [ I have started putting posts with big words over there and more everyday stuff over here – it seems to be working]  Thank you all for your great feedback and thoughts!

In his book Process Theology: a basic introduction , C. Robert Mesle says:

“the miracle of birth” is a wise phrase, pointing us toward a healthy theology of miracles. Birth is not supernatural. It involves no intervention violating natural processes. We know a tremendous amount about reproduction and may one day be able to create life in laboratories. Yet for all that, we still feel, and speak of, the miracle of birth…
Miracles become problems when we think of them as demonstrating divine power to intervene in the world however God wishes. The problems are not merely scientific, but also theological and moral. Nothing challenges the goodness of God or the justice of the universe more than the stark randomness of such alleged “miracles”.

That is an interesting way to think about the subject, but I want to make an important distinction between supernatural and miraculous.  The Miraculous can be seen several ways – as something that surprises us, outside our expectations; as something that is amazing; like the miracle of birth, something that is statistically improbable , like landing a Airplane on the Hudson River; or religiously as something that only divine help could account for.

There are several reasons why I think that this topic is SO important:
I can not tell you how often someone says something about how God directed them to take a specific road or a route that avoided an accident.

  • Did god tell everyone and they just were not listening?
  • Did god only tell those whom love god?
  • Does god monitor all traffic patters and why would god be so concerned with getting you  home on time but so unconcerned with children being abused and people going hungry?

People often get defensive and say “In a worship service I saw/experienced  _____. Are you trying to tell me that did not happen?”  No. I absolutely believe you that it happened. What I am saying is that maybe the explanation provided in the worship service was not the whole story of why the phenomenon happened (people being slain in the spirit, etc).
I want to be clear about something: I believe in prophetic words. I have told people things that I could not have known in my own power – including twice that I have described pictures that hang in their homes, homes that I had never been to.
I absolutely believe that the Lord could ‘lead’ you to call someone who needs a call ‘at that exact moment”.

So keep that in mind when I say that we need to revisit our frameworks around the miraculous and we definitely need to abandon the whole ‘super’ natural worldview. It does not hold together under even the slightest examination in the 21st century. Continue reading “trying to making sense of the miraculous”

The work of God’s Spirit

This was a post on a blog from earlier this week: Hey Bo!

First, in what ways have you changed the WAY you talk about the Spirit’s work in light of “the 21st century update”? Examples?

Secondly, in what ways do you talk about the Spirit’s work SPECIFICALLY in order for it to be a “subversive danger to the systems of this world” or are these two questions one and the same?

I’d be curious to hear more!

This blog looks great. I, for one, and much more likely to hit it up now that it’s all in one place. It’s a very human thing, but it’s true that we are quite lazy, even in web-browsing! Can’t wait for the return of the POD!

I started to respond but realized that it was far too big a topic for a little reply so it morphed into a whole new post:

There are three big changes:

  1. I got rid of Dualism (like my understanding of  Transcendent and Immanent) that were both unhelpful and antiquated. I had been sold a bad (simplistic) understanding called the 3 tiered universe.  This change is essential to understanding WHAT is happening.
  2. I brought in an understanding of the Trinity called Perichoresis (or Circuminsession) that speaks of HOW it works.
  3. I have adopted a “relational” model (process) that explains WHY the Spirit’s work looks the way it does.

These three changes have revolutionized both my understanding and my practice.

I will give you an example: at church we often open a service by praying and asking God to “come” and we sing songs about the spirit/grace/power/rain coming “down”. We talk about God breaking “in” or breaking “through”.

Now I understand that this is all just language (theo-poetics) that comes from our PERCEPTIONS. That is fine. But God has already come “down” and is already “in”, God has “come” and IS at work among us.  So I don’t get caught up on the imagery – I understand that it is just how we imagine it.

This has then freed me up to stop looking at things in ‘kind’ and see them in ‘degree’. Continue reading “The work of God’s Spirit”

>Prayer, Healing and Cancer


This Friday I want to talk about walking on water and other miracles in the Bible. Today I want to talk about praying for cancer and why some people are healed.
There are two quick things that I want say before we get into it. First, when we talk about healing, most of the time we start in the Bible and then transfer what we think about it forward to today.  I want to do the opposite. I want to start with how people are healed today and then go back and see if that may have been what was going on in the Bible. 
Second, since I came out last week that I do not believe in the supernatural I wanted to thank everyone who commented on this blog, facebook, and email. I really appreciate all the thoughtful responses. 
I don’t believe in the supernatural – but I do believe in prayer for healing.

People who were taught the supernatural view may hear that and think “that doesn’t make sense” or “that is contradictory”. This only exposes how little we have thought about all of this and how lazy our thinking can get when we think we have it all figured out. It has never dawned on some of us that there may be another way to think about spiritual and physical healing than the ‘super’ natural explanation. 

I would like to put forward an alternative explanation for your consideration:
Cancer is when cells of the body become disconnected from the function and purposes of rest of the body. They are separated from the story or narrative design of the body. Once disconnected, or out of line with the body, they actually begin to turn against the body and attack the body – multiplying at an unhealthy rate and ultimately eating the cells and organs of it’s host body. Cancer cells are separated from the purpose and story of the body that gives them life and begin to work against the body that gives them life. 
When we pray for someone who has cancer and they are ‘healed’, what do we think happened? I think that what happened is that we as a community surrounded them with our bodies (cells) and spirits (partnership with God) in order to make a place of openness for a “God who is at work among us” to reconnect those cells to the story (and purpose) of the body and bring them back in line to work with the body in a healthy way. 
What I don’t think happened is that a transcendent God reached through the veil of existence and magically touch only this person to take out the bad cells. 
I really do believe that God is here at work among us all the time and when we open up and participate with God’s will and purpose that it is possible that misaligned cells that are disconnected from body’s story can come back into alignment and participate with the body instead of against it. 
Doctors call it remission. We call it a miracle. It is natural and beautiful. What it is not is “super” natural. 
It is not dependent on praying hard enough, praying good enough, being good enough people to pray for this, etc.  It isn’t about looking for unbelief, or unconfessed sin, or some other flaw in the sick person or the pray-ers. It isn’t about a God who is “in control” or that “everything happens for a reason” or that everything will make sense in Heaven (after we die), or that God is sovereign and chooses who lives and who dies. 
I still believe in healing. But I now think that it happens for a different reason than I used to. I don’t believe in the supernatural.  I do believe that prayer is powerful and that sometimes people are healed from cancer. God has given us medicine which can be powerful. God has given us a community that prays and that can be powerful.  God has given us the presence of God’s Spirit who is at work among us. Being open to this can be very powerful. 

Let me know what you think… I am very interested in having a conversation about all of this. 

>Powerful in a different way

>When it come to power, there is no doubt the something has happened to God.  I contend that it is a different kind of power, most go with other explanations.

I need to say up front here that I believe in ‘more than you can see’.  Admittedly I am not a big fan of the phrase “supernatural” because of the worldview that it comes from (as if the power of prayer was not the most natural thing in the world and the way that Jesus worked with nature and wants us to as well).

I need to say that at the beginning because if you did not know it, there will be points in this blog where someone could think that I do not believe in ‘more than you can see’.

Something about God – or a gap in how the Bible talks about power and what we see in our world –  has changed and there are so many ways that people have attempted to deal with it.

  • Enlightenment liberals often take the line of reasoning that God would never break the rules that God originally set up (such as physics). So the change must have been that the ancients only thought that Jesus walked on water  –  or that they were actually talking allegorically or poetically when they talked about such things.  Bottom Line : in this view those kind of miraculous things don’t happen anymore and probably never did.
  • Charismatic or Pentecostals, obviously, DO believe that miracles and acts of power still do – or can – happen. When they don’t  (and often they don’t) then reasons are looked for: not enough faith, not enough prayer, those who pray are not holy or dedicated enough. Bottom Line: This view says that the world works the same way it did in Bible times and God doesn’t change so if we are not seeing God’s power like they did – it must be on our end.
  • Dispensational folks say that God works differently in different periods in history (called dispensations) and after the Apostolic Age ( in the Book of Acts) we moved into the Church Age and miracles are not a part of our age. Bottom Line: in this view, God can do powerful things, has in the past, and will in the future… just not right now.
  • Even Barth (Karl Barth and those who like him) runs into the problem with a lack of power (like miracles). The explanation that developed in the last half of the 20th century is that because God’s fullest revelation was done in Christ then God has no need to do those kind of things since it was a ‘once for all’ revelation. Bottom Line: in this view the only thing that God would do (like in the Book of Acts) is to validate that original revelation. 
  • There are those voices that talk of the Death of God. You understand why this carried so much weight in the 20th century with the two world wars, atomic bombs, death camps, all the way the Bosnian war and Africa’s post-colonial realities (to name just a few). 

Bottom Line: for both the Barthians and the Death of God crew is that outside of emotional worship services or crusades… it was tough for many people to see how or where God was at. God seemed absent when things mattered most and some were left to reason that this supposedly ‘all powerful being’ either didn’t care, was not as powerful as advertised or was dead.

If you study history you can begin to see that something is definitely different.  Either the Ancients were under false illusions, or it is all some sort of Medieval superstition being exposed or there has been a death of ‘god’ power or  that God is choosing to do something a little different because these are the last days and this is all part of the plan. Whichever one you go with, you have some followup questions to deal with.

Fun Example: 
I love talking with Charismatic-Pentecostal believers who focus on the fact the demons and miracles are still a part of pre-Industrial (non-developed) parts of the world. They point to Africa and South America where stuff still happens like it did in the Book of Acts.
The question I ask is “so do demons lose their power when people have electricity ?”

I have had some really fun conversations around this!  It is a fascinating place to launch a dialogue. The most interesting response I have ever heard was by one of my best friends who told me that since believers have been binding demons by the power of the Holy Sprit for 2,000 years – that there just are not as many demons on the earth as there used to be.  I asked if they then congregate in places like rural Africa? After that the conversation got wild…

At the end of the day, however, I think that what all these approaches are addressing is more important that how they address it.  What they are addressing is that there is a gap between how the ancients perceived God and talked about power and what we have seen and experienced in our own world.   Something has changed.

Act 2: here is where I am at on this.  I think that we have a bad understanding of power and how it is that God works in the world.  I am not interested in discrediting people of the past – but neither am i interested in dogmatically clinging to a cosmology and meta-physics from a pre-scientific era. I want to deal with the world as it is. Not as I was taught that it should be and not as people used to think that it was… I am interested in an optimistic (hopeful) Christian realism.

I have bought into a school of thought that says God is in the process with us and that reality is relational. It’s interesting that I believe so many of the same things as I used to but that I think so radically differently about them. 

One example is of God’s power. I believe that God is powerful and I also believe that God is at work in the world.  The difference is that I now conceive of God’s power a little differently. I believe that God’s power is non-coercive. It is more seductive than unilateral. God works with what is. This view of power is more persuasive than coercive.

My favorite way of introducing this idea is a story that Marjorie Suchocki tells.

One day the Sun and the Wind were watching a man walk and decided to have a competition. The Wind challenged the Sun to see who could get the hat off of the man’s head. The man was walking and the wind began to blow and blow in an attempt to knock the hat off of the man’s head by sheer force.
The result was that the man placed his hand on his hat and pressed down with all his strength. In fact, the more the wind blew, the more the wind blew the harder the man resisted and worked to keep the hat on his head.
The Sun decided to go a different direction. The Sun was concerned with heloing the man to want to take his hat off – not simply doing it to the man but wanting to work with the man by helping him to desire for his hat to come off.
The Sun began to shine with great intensity and increased the temperature to such a point that the man became uncomfortable with how hot is was and willing reached up with his hand and took the hat off.

If the wind had succeeded – the man would have viewed it as a bad and undesirable thing. He had worked against it and would have tried to correct it.
The sun succeeded and the man perceived it as a good thing and even participate in bringing it about. The man may not have even been aware of the role that the environment played on his desires – thinking that it was his idea all along!

God is not the wind trying to knock the hat off our head with power.

God is the sun, influencing our environment in order to change our desires – so that God is not doing things to us but is working with us to bring about the greater good (also called the will of God).  

Act 3:  Paul Knitter talks about it in terms of the sail on a boat. Our will is not like a motor but an organized cloth that is anchored at strategic points. We put up our sail in order to harness that which is already at work (available). We can not manufacture it. We do not generate it. We do not direct it so much as harness and navigate it.

The everyday implication for these ideas is that we reframe how we talk about God’s power. The idea of the Puppet master pulling strings from behind the curtain and the unilateral coercion are relics of the past.  I just don’t see how we continue with that language in the 21st century.  I prefer to talk about the Weakness of God (1 Cor. 1:15)  [I have blogged about it here].  God’s power is a different sort of power. God is powerful but it is not a unilateral power. It is not a coercive power. It is a persuasive (more seductive) power. It works with our desires and it begins with what is.

This is why I want to speak in ways that reflect the way things are.

>Praying to a God who isn’t There

>I wanted to follow up on last week’s podcast “the three gods we pray to” because some of the feedback that I got said that I just wasn’t specific enough.

Listen to the POD here : EveryDay Link

Not wanting to use labels: One of the things that makes being specific difficult is that I am trying to stay away from using labels. In my effort to steer clear of the Argument Culture, I have tried to speak generically where possible and avoid over-categorization and divisions. Sometimes I just try and broadcast a progressive concept or put forward an innovative idea and sort of let people chew on it and let it soak and savour without being too specific or directive. And I like to do that…but this time I’ve been asked to be very specific because of the nature of what I’m putting forward. And I think that’s a good idea.

so I’m just going to spell it out in as clear an English as possible, then share with you why I think it is and finish up with some application.

Here it is: when we talk about God, we usually talk about the God of the Big 5 ( omnipotent, omniscient, omni-present, immuntable, impassable) we say that this God “knows the future” and “never changes”. It’s a pretty conservative view of God. And that would be fine… if that’s who we prayed to & how we behaved. But I don’t think that’s who we prayed to & doesn’t seem to me that we act like that God runs things.

Let me share with you where I think the problem is coming from and then I will get to the other gods.

The lens of history:
I believe that the disconnect is coming because we have a false view of history as if it were linear. When we as every day Protestant & Catholic Christians ( whether we are Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, mainline, charismatic, evangelical, Pentecostal or conservative) we try to look back to the cross – but we are not looking straight there. We look through several lenses.

Most of us are individuals. We are the results of enlightenment thinking and don’t see ourselves in the way that somebody born in 1600s — whether in North America or Western Europe or Africa or Asia — would’ve thought of themselves 400 years ago, even if they were our same race or lived on our same acre.

So if I just offer myself up here is an example, I am a male of European descent in North America trying to look back past the Industrial Revolution, Protestant Reformation and Renaissance. Trying to skip over the Middle Ages and the Crusades back to this event that I know as Christmas and read about in my Bible. I do this by skipping ( or assuming) the Greek philosophies that have impacted Christianity and its creeds and the writing of its scriptures. Then I try to wade through that Hebrew nature of this story without getting bogged down in it’s Jewishness by trying to read about this cosmic event in a universal way. Now by Universal I mean generic and that is where I fail.

Jesus didn’t do what he did in a generic way. He did not come to a generic place in a generic time and generically redeem us all. He came to a specific place in a specific time and that has been portrayed to me in a specific way and that has been handed down to me in a specific way. When I ignore all of that context, I may not be aware of what else is being reflected in my lenses if I don’t acknowledge that I look through lenses.

Last week one I was part of an online chat. It was a really good question about church leadership and it was just opened up for discussion. It was a good discussion. Then this guy comes on and says something like ‘here’s a novel idea: why don’t we look at what God said in the word’ and proceeded to be condescending and pushy and tell us all what we already knew about the Apostle Paul. It effectively brought the conversation to an end because how do you respond to that? It took so much energy for me not to reply and get into it. I wanted to say to this guy: dude I have so many problems with your opening sentence. First, I know that you mean well but when you say “word” you don’t mean it the same way that those who wrote it mean it. When Paul said “word” he wouldn’t have been talking about the same thing you’re talking about and now using as a heavy-handed precedent. Secondly when you say that “God said” you are ignoring authorial situation of the Scripture -please acknowledge that Paul or Luke or whoever you are quoting wrote in their own voice the things that they were inspired by God to write. They were not dummies being used by a ventriloquist god. Thirdly don’t act like there is one chapter in the New Testament that says ‘ here’s how to run a church’ & that is the final word on the issue. We piece this together from all whole bunch of snapshots about many different ways that churches were organized. There was not one church in the Bible. Lastly, even if that was the case (which it wasn’t) we don’t live in that world. We live in a world that has been deeply affected by what we read about in Scripture.

The very fact that we are having this conversation on the Internet in English should bring some humility to our perspective. Unfortunately it seems to do the exact opposite. It seems to make us more programed, more certain and more prescriptive unless we intentionally acknowledge it and account for it… our lenses can actually limit our view.

the Three Gods

So here is where I’m coming at this — I don’t believe in the Big 5 God. Not as it is configured in those 5. I don’t see that God in the Hebrew Scripture or the Gospels. I don’t imagine that God when I pray and I don’t see that God at work in the world.

In fact, I would say that if you pray and expect anything to change your probably not praying to the Big 5 God but more of a free will god. Even people I know who will passionately defend this classic view of God as sovereign and transcendent and unchangeable, pray in ways that, at least to me, seem inconsistent with the classic conservative view of God. Praying to the Big 5 God is in order to get your self in line with what is already written in the stars.

Praying to the God of free will is, I think, what most people are comfortable with or at least practice. No matter what they say in their doctrinal statement or theology debates, it all kind of sounds the same when we pray. I get to pray with people from different denominations and in different settings. It seems to me that in the free flow prayer that Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Calvinists, Arminians and just about everyone else — no matter how they say that they differ — only once in a while does someone pray something that I can’t say ‘ amen’ to. I have found this when praying with Europeans, people from former Soviet countries, Africans, those from various countries in Asia and Canadians. I think that we all (mostly) pray to God #2: The God of Free Will.

Since I don’t believe in the Big 5 God, who do I pray to? I pray to the one that is intimately involved in the process. The one who is present in spirit. The one who works through us and with us and on us and for us.

Let me give you an example. If I hear about the atrocious living conditions in Haiti or the water and the mosquito problems that foster malaria in Africa and my heart is burdened for this. I pray about it. Maybe God calls me to go and be a part of the solution. Maybe God calls me to send money to someone who is on the ground working there. And that’s how God works. But the top soil doesn’t come back to Haiti because I pray in my multi-million dollar church building. The wells in Africa aren’t made clean because I pray at the mens’ breakfast at Starbucks. Children don’t suddenly develop resistance to malaria or AIDS because I pray from the comfort of my living room. That is not how God works. God is in the process of someone going. When that person goes -God is at work.

We don’t ask for topsoil to fall out of heaven onto Haiti. We don’t pray that tomorrow morning they are going to wake up and all of the trees will have magically regrown overnight. We know that’s not how it works.
And when we want to send someone money, whether for ministry or out of simple generosity, we send it to someone we know. Because God works in relationship. It’s not like a name pops in your head, and as you’re writing the check to this person you’ve never met their address comes to you. Then you fill out the envelope put a stamp on it and drop money in the mail to someone that you do not know if they exist or if the addresses right (and just say ‘I have faith’).

God lays it on our heart to give to people we know… brings their situation to mind… brings their face to our memory. We hear a story and are moved.

If someone in our congregation has an extended sickness and we pray for them, but no one calls them or visit them or writes them a note… once they recover and they come back church and we ‘oh we were praying for you- that you would be cared for and ministered to’. You see where I am going here… they are ministered to when we go over and cared for when we care for them. In that sense, we are the answer to our own prayer. That is how God works! It how it is designed and how it works best.

Look, I am not saying that we are answer to every prayer or that the answer is found ‘within’ or something like that. All I am asking for is that we be honest… that is how god really works: through us. I believe in the transcendent. I believe in the mystical. I believe that God’s Spirit is present among us and at work through us. That God is intimately involved in the process of unfolding history. I do not believe in the puppet master that manipulates by pulling the strings behind the scenes. I do not believe in the God who wrote the script ahead of time and is now just sitting back watching the play unfold on the stage of history. Who shows up on a stage once in while to move the set around but for the most part just wound up the clock and let history play out.

I do not believe that the future exists. I think that what ever we have that looks that way is really divine prophetic promise of participation. Put that together with God’s intimate knowledge of the creatures and the creation and you have a divine perspective we don’t have access to except through revelation. But this Big 5 God is a hybrid between some elements out of Scripture, some out of early Greek philosophy (mostly Platonic) and the evolution of church history (mostly Aristotelian).

That’s why I think it would be far better for us to pray to God who is present with us by spirit. Who is in fact with us here in the moment. And who is making available all of the resources that we need to bring about this will that God has an invested interested in.

If you want to stick with praying to God #2 and saying that the future is an elaborate series of possibilities and that God is the God of all of those possibilities that’s fine. I can go with that. As long as we acknowledge how things really work. Regardless of how the Hebrews pictured it, regardless of how it was portrayed in the early apostolic age, we need to talk about how the world really works for us here now.

I believe that the God of Calvin and Luther died in the second world war. Between Auschwitz and Hiroshima that concept of God died. That God is dead and even if he* did exist like that before World War II, he sure hasn’t been at work in the world since then. Even if he did exist, and I don’t think he did, he isn’t around now.

That isn’t to say that God isn’t around. God is alive and well. God is here with us now. It’s just that conception of God passed away in the gas chambers and in the nuclear fallout. The world will never be the same. And if we keep using these old pictures of God when we debate and when we pray I fear that those of us who call ourselves people of faith – the ones who still actually take time to pray- we may not be participating in the world the way it actually works. Which may be why we cling to antiquated fantasies about what a different world would look like and then hope that God ejects our soul out of here and evacuates the planet because we don’t want to go through the hard process of bringing about that preferable future and seen the kingdom, and earth as it is in heaven.

It’s a conversation I want to have. I want to talk about how the world really works. Who we actually think God to be. Make sure that our prayer both lines up with that conception of God and prepares us for the process of participating in the world as it actually is. That to me is what the brand-new day is all about. We live in a world that has “come of age”. I think it’s time to grow up and mature our faith for a world that is radically changing in our day.

and since I don’t believe in the second coming or the end times in the classic sense **
– I think that we will have plenty of time to do this.
But more than that, I think that it IS time to do this.

* I use ‘He’ for God when talking about the Big 5 God.
** I believe that the book of Revelation was directed to the events of the first 3 centuries and specifically Rome. It was probably fulfilled in the sense that it was intended by about 312 or 353 CE]

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