God Always Does New Things
When we lose our awe and humility toward the impenetrable mystery “surrounding all existence,” and our concomitant sense of the failure of ideas and words to articulate divinity, the qualitative gap between human language and divine ineffability collapses. God then erroneously “becomes father, mother, lover, friend.” – Heidi Epstein, Melting the Venusberg: A Feminist Theology of Music, p.13
In the summer of 1986, long before I had any inclination to attend Seminary, an old friend of mine who was in the midst of her own Seminary training told me that the first year of Seminary is like a wrecking ball: People’s confidence in their own understanding of the faith is destroyed, with the rest of the time being one of the faculty offering tools not so much to reconstruct a new faith structure but to move forward confidently without such a structure. I don’t know if I’ve told the story before – I’ve been writing blog posts for 11 years; it’s nearly impossible for me to keep track of everything I’ve ever written – but after about four weeks of her first semester in Seminary, my wife experienced a kind of acute crisis of faith that many people experience around the same point in their studies. No matter how open one is to learning about the faith, understanding new ways of reading the Bible, thinking about the Christ-event in our personal and communal lives, the impact of a great deal of new information in a relatively short period of time can shake even the strongest of faith-foundations. I saw a few folks walk away at this point; they were far too uncomfortable having their sureties challenged this way*. Most, however, ended up like Lisa, sitting and crying from a combination of mourning and fear. They were mourning the loss of what felt like anything solid upon which to stand. They were terrified that, having lost that solid rock of understanding there would never be anything to take its place.
One of the things at least my own Seminary professors kind of pounded into our heads was the reality that God’s revelation is not a “once-for-all” event; even should one adhere to some kind of strict Christocentrism a la Barth, denying the efficacy of other avenues of revelation, we human beings do not and cannot ever have the whole of divine revelation. Revelation includes not only a revealing but always a simultaneous concealing; there is always mystery, always more to see and hear. Were it not so, what the hell are we doing, anyway?
Over the past few days, I faced a true crisis of faith. It’s something that’s been building for a while, to be honest. The crisis within the United Methodist Church, the dishonesty and exclusivism of those who oppose opening our denomination to sexual minorities, and the narrow, stingy orthodoxy of those self-appointed arbiters of orthodoxy within our church have left me confused and angry. Matters regarding my current home church are also a problem, ones that leave me unsure of how to address them. Finally, reading a book about music and death over the weekend pushed to the forefront of my own mind the reality that our deaths, whatever else they might mean, certainly mean the annihilation of our personhood. In an instant what was will disappear, never to be again. Essentially, I spent part of the weekend wondering, “What the hell does anything matter?”
Yesterday, however, it occurred to me that this crisis was precisely the kind of thing that should happen periodically to all believers: We must face new information, new situations and contexts, new ways of thinking about the Christ-event and its meaning in our lives. When we do so, we should find ourselves unable, at least initially, to integrate all this into how we understand the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We should wonder what the hell any of it means. Having spent my adult life studying and thinking about the faith that informs my life, if I hadn’t experienced something new, then I was believing in the wrong God.
No matter how faithful we are; no matter how sure we have a handle on this whole faith-thing and God-thing, we should never be so arrogant as to assume we always have it all (something I tell other people all the time). One of the central meanings of the Christ-event is something theologian Jurgen Moltmann pointed out over and over again in his work: Our God is the God of New Things: New Life, New Creation, New Community constantly refreshed by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Refusing settle for that which the Church Universal has already said regarding the content and meaning of the Christ-event is a necessary way for the church and its members to remain healthy, open to all the possibilities yet to discover about who our God is and what God is doing.
As for my personal “crisis”, I’ll just say that it was a good reminder that I cannot rest confidently upon all that I have already learned. Our doctrines, our theologies, they are always and ever prolegomenna to that new thing that is yet coming from God. When we forget that, when we insist upon aged formulas in dead languages and thought, we keep Jesus buried in tombs we construct in our arrogance and lack of faith. Unless we’re willing to allow past be prologue, our doctrines to be the beginning of our theological exploration rather than the end, and allow for the possibilities that, as the Bible says repeatedly in both Testaments, that God is doing a New Thing, we shall wither and die on the vine.
God is never what we wish. It is always the case that we are told who God is. We must always remember that the canon is not closed, revelation is not exhausted, and God really does do new things all the time, whether that’s in our denominations, our local churches, or in our individual lives.
*During my first year, on the very first day of classes during a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, when the professor reminded the class there were two conflicting and contradictory stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, two people got up and left the room, never to return.