Skip to main content

shortcut theology

Image from cshughes.com
One of the byproducts of studying theology is that I listen very carefully to how we talk about God. While it is often indirect, our language can reveal that we believe God is tough to please, slow to respond, and slightly stingy. Other times we speak about a God who is so accepting and non-judgmental that justice and discernment never seem to enter the picture. Sometimes we use words that speak of God as an enigma that we are trying to decipher. We may also conclude that the world is a direct reflection of God which makes him a pretty messed up Creator. Our words also reveal what we expect or want from God. We ask for healing, for money, for jobs, for a life partner, for well-behaved children, for good grades, for direction in life. We basically want our lives to turn out well.

Now there is nothing wrong with desiring a good life, but part of the problem is that we have a rather impoverished notion of this "good life," equating it with comfort and riches. The other problem is the way many of us go about trying to "wrestle" this good life from the hands of God. Sadly, it reveals that we often partake in what I call "shortcut theology." Basically, we want a life filled with miracles and divine interventions instead of one that includes difficult challenges, painful transformation, and ongoing surrender.

Shortcuts are helpful at times, no question, but a life made up of shortcuts builds a different kind of character than one which is dedicated to truly walking with Jesus through death into life. Take the analogy of a builder: do you want to hire a builder who uses shortcuts or one who lays each piece of wood and pounds in each nail with care and patience? Do you want a builder who is happy with a product as long as it looks good on the outside or one who measures every cut twice and pulls out every crooked nail? This is not to say that God is not a healer, a miracle-worker, and a generous giver; God is all that, but he also reveals himself as a suffering servant, obedient to the death. God's gracious gifts are never meant to be shortcuts to the "good life," but come to us as a natural expression of who God is. Let me expand on this a bit more by addressing some of the limiting views we can have of God which might result in "shortcut theology."

1. God is not a "means to an end" God. In other words, God is not utilitarian by nature. He does not "use" people or situations in order to achieve a purpose. I realize that some of the Old Testament accounts might read this way at first glance, but remember that the leitmotif (guiding theme) of the story of Israel is the covenant phrase "You will be my people and I will be your God." It is relational, not utilitarian. We may explain sickness or a challenging time in life by saying it is meant to build character or correct us or set us on a different course. While these could indeed be some of the results, we must be careful about this type of reasoning. Seeing God as utilitarian means that we see him as somewhat of a manipulator, pulling strings to get a certain result. A utilitarian God would see people as objects and projects, constantly being "worked on" in order to be made holy, righteous, and fit for the kingdom of God. We would be on God's holy assembly line, so to speak; it is easy to see that this model of God as "fabricator" is not personal or intimate at all. The question "why" figures heavily in the utilitarian equation. Why did this horrible thing happen? So that God could purify us. Why am I not healed? Because it would be bad for me in some way. For every event, there is an explanation. If you have ever read the Bible, you will know that it is not a book full of explanations, providing reasons for every event, a because for every why. We must be careful not to reduce God to being the ultimate purpose-driven personality.

2. God is not an "exchange" God. By this I mean that life with God does not operate in neat equations whereby we do x and God responds with y. I repent = God grants me salvation from hell. I do something bad = God makes me miserable. I give money to the church = I become richer. Projecting Newton's law of physics, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, onto the Creator of the universe is extremely problematic. First, it means that our view of God resembles a sophisticated power tool that we are trying to master, and second, it reveals that we are attempting to "use" God for our own purposes. That never turns out well.

3. God is not a "mastermind" God. When we believe that life is a conundrum to be figured out or a mystery to be solved, we often use vocabulary like "finding the secret" or "discovering the key." We might think that God has concocted a puzzle and once we properly decipher the clues, we will have entry into the "hidden" ways of God. However, God has not created an elaborate system for which we have to crack the code in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching about the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven and he insisted that it is near, it is close, it is right beside us. There is no secret to unlock. God may be impossible to fully comprehend but he is not looking for clever people to unravel a mystery, he is asking us to be his friends.

Let me suggest another way of looking at God. God is radiant. God shines. God penetrates. God brightens. God illuminates. God exudes, emanates, emits, gives out, shimmers, flashes, burns, is brilliant, is resplendent. God is light and in him there is no darkness. This One is not primarily linear, not an equation, not a secret to unravel.  This One is glory, pure and beautiful.  This radiant One eradicates sin, injustice, evil, and pride. This One somehow incites and dispels fear at the same time. This One is pervasive and persuasive, yet invitational. Like the warm sun, this One's light transforms a seed in a dark place into a flourishing plant which bears much fruit. This One is Light, Life, Truth, Love, and the Way (the how). This One asks to be enjoyed, to be lived in.

NOTE: I drank a bit too much caffeine last night.  As a result, I was lying awake at various times of the night and early morning thinking about what I have been reading lately and how it applies to my doctoral dissertation. This post contains some thoughts that came out of these musings.  I realize that it is a bit underdeveloped and overextended at this point, but I wanted to begin to articulate some of these ideas to see where they might lead. Your comments welcome.  

Comments

Dean said…
Very well said. I love it when the Mystery in God's character is discussed. It allows us to see God both as someone other (beyond our understanding) and someone close (communicating, loving, caring, healing compassionate etc...). Well done.

Popular posts from this blog

the songs we sing

NOTE: I am going to make some pretty strong statements below, but understand that it is my way of taking an honest, hard look at my own worship experience and practice. My desire is not to be overly critical, but to open up dialogue by questioning things I have assumed were totally fine and appropriate. In other words, I am preaching to myself. Feel free to listen in.

---------------------

When I am in a church meeting during the singing time, I sometimes find myself silent, unable to get the words past my lips. At times I just need a moment of stillness, time to listen, but other times, the words make me pause because I don't know that I can sing them honestly or with integrity. This is a good thing. We should never mindlessly or heartlessly sing songs just because everyone else is. We should care deeply about what we say in our sung, communal worship.

At their best, songs sung by the gathered body of Christ call to life what is already in us: the hope, the truth, the longing, t…

the movement of humility

We live in a context of stratification where much of society is ordered into separate layers or castes. We are identified as upper class, middle class, or lower class. Our language reflects this up/down (superior/inferior) paradigm. We want to be at the top of the heap, climb the ladder of success, break through the glass ceiling, be king of the hill. This same kind of thinking seeps into our theology. When we talk about humility, we think mostly think in terms of lowering ourselves, willfully participating in downward mobility. This type of up/down language is certainly present in biblical texts (James 4:10 is one example), but I believe that the kind of humility we see in Jesus requires that we step outside of a strictly up/down paradigm. Instead of viewing humility as getting down low or stepping down a notch on the ladder of society, perhaps it is more helpful to think in terms of proximity and movement.

Jesuit theologian, James Keenan, notes that virtues and vices are not really…

vertical theology

Much of the thinking and writing I have been doing for the past year or so, especially in academic settings, has to do with how hierarchy is embedded in our theology and ways of structuring communities. To me, that's not a g