I don’t like most sermons. (Note: this post is adapted from a sermon I gave this week. Not at my church, though.) As a preacher, I’m skeptical of the sacred regard we give to the sermon. Most Sundays I can’t justify a lecture-based all-ages banking-model of religious education, but it’s expected of me—so I do it, and I try to make it enjoyable (for me, if not everyone else).
I couldn’t locate the source of my distaste until recently, over at the Restoring Pangea blog, when Nathaniel Grimes offered an explanation. Grimes (who happens to attend my church), describes a church where “sermons present principles which everyone is expected to be familiar with, but which the congregation inexplicably does not exemplify. The underlying assumption is that, in order to become more [insert noble ethic here], people mostly need a combination of information and motivation.” The sermon is a persuasive essay designed to change your behavior or bore you out of the pews.
The underlying assumption of this preaching style, though, is that it begins with “the expectation… that all people are rational, moral, individual actors who only need to summon the will or learn the proper techniques to do what is right.”
This was a lightbulb for me. I don’t really believe humans are rational, moral, individual actors.
If I am being completely honest, I will say three years of pastoring has not strengthened my faith in humanity—it has made me more misanthropic, more skeptical, and more irritated by the very nature of humanity. Not because of my congregation, simply because of what I observe about humans—en masse—trying to become more noble creatures together. It has made me more certain of original sin is simply the banality of evil. Evil is far less intentional than traditional theology would have us believe—the insidiousness of evil is that it derives from our own inertia and comfort, and we are very often able to create a moral framework for it.
This assumption—that humans are rational, moral, and individual actors—this is the assumption that Western Christianity has held for centuries, and it is in fact the reason Christianity has crumbled in the face of postmodernism. Where postmodernism tugs at our self-reflection and asks if we are really as rational as we think, Christianity has insisted—especially American evangelical Christianity!—Christianity has insisted above all other doctrine that the human is a creature of rational, moral, and individual action.
But this is not as dark as it seems. There’s a kind of cosmological comfort in letting go of this Enlightenment perspective on human behavior.
Increasingly, as I’ve watched myself try to behave like an adult in the last several years, and I observe the places where I’ve failed to, I am quite certain I am not rational. And if I am moral, my morals are always fighting against my own ego and ambitions, no matter how altruistic my ego bends. And I am far from individual. I have dear friends who go so hard for me. Who check in, who care beyond all expectation, who make me listen to new music, who teach me how to art and human better. And I need that. I would not have half the resiliency I do if I believed in self-reliance.
What a relief to be irrational, morally ambiguous, and interdependent.
But if we apply this standard of the rational, moral, individual to ourselves, it is only because we have the same expectation for God. And this, I think, mistakes God’s character.
God is not rational. Or God is rational in some way beyond human knowing. Leaving Jacob with a weak hip after wrestling with him? Impregnating a virgin and telling her to just trust that her husband will come around to this idea? The self-restraint to watch God’s own son love himself into hatred and death? Our God is deeply irrational in a transcendent way, irrational to the point of love. And love is irrational. (If you don’t believe me, I can only recommend that you stop reading this and listen to Lemonade. Then come back.)
But what then? Is God not moral? I believe God is moral, but God is irrationally moral. God works in the context of our lives; and in our contexts, morality doesn’t always look very moral. God is moral in a way that converts persecutors into evangelists; in a way that leaves a prophet wallowing in the belly of a whale for three days; in a way that redeems prostitutes (and rapists); in a way that justifies shepherd boys killing giants—which, really, is morally problematic for Anabaptists. So God must be moral in some way beyond rationality. God is moral in a way that is complicated by human ability to thwart God’s original plan.
And individuality? Christianity is a monotheistic religions, but there’s a difference between the monotheistic and the individual. Individual implies one who acts on their own impulses, with a conscience so sure there is no need to consult others. But God is constantly consulting! God the Creator is working in concert with the Redeemer and Sustainer. The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that God is, by nature, relational. God is consulting among the Godhead about us. It’s sort of like the film Inside Out. God is a being of vast internal dialogue that we are not privy to. God is creation, God is love, and love is loving, love is love-seeking, love is the reason God sticks around for all our failures. God is interrelated.
A rational, moral, individual God is a distortion of the Bible. Is a clockmaker God who is uninvested in the very real pain of being human. We don’t need a rational, moral, individual God, because that sort of God doesn’t need to care about us. Doesn’t care about us. Any God who creates rational, moral, individual humans has already walked away and left us to our own devices. In that sort of faith, all we need is self-reliance and a willingness to blame the victim for a lack of rationality.
But an irrational, ambiguously moral, interrelated God is a God who wants to show up for our lives. A God who takes sides in case of injustice; a God who appears on the cross and beside the cross; a God who cares and cares so hard. And if our God doesn’t—or refuses to—care so hard, why would we bother to call that indifference a god?