Can God improvise outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy?

Can God improvise outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy? November 7, 2014

Generally there are two extreme positions that Christians can take when talking about where other religions come from. Some Christians would say that in order for Christianity to be uniquely right, we have to believe that Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Ba’hai, and everything else besides Judaism and Christianity are the entirely false products of demons who have deliberately misled billions of people in order to consign them to an eternity in hell. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be those who say that God has reached out to each culture using a different story and Christianity is just one way of framing the mystery of God among many other equally valid possibilities. It shouldn’t be any surprise to my readers that I’m closer to the latter end of the spectrum than the former. I think Christianity is the most beautiful story about God, but I don’t think other stories about the mystery of existence, theistic or otherwise, lack important wisdom and truth that I can learn from.

One of my most fundamental presumptions about God is that God is a pragmatist who meets people where they are. That’s what God did with the Israelites for thousands of years. In the age of tribal deities, God allowed Israel to treat him like a tribal deity. God accommodated their needs as a people every step of the way, even acquiescing to give them a king when the plan had originally been for God to be their only king (1 Samuel 8). Just about every king that Israel had was corrupt in some way or another, but God went along with it and used his prophets to put a check on the kings’ power. God revealed himself more fully to Israel over time, ultimately showing them through the prophets that he didn’t just exist for the sake of Israel but that he cares about all the people int he world. Certainly there were a lot of wicked things that Israel did that God didn’t go along with, but he was infinitely patient with them and willing to communicate with them in a way that was coherent to their cultural context.

If God was such a pragmatist with Israel, it doesn’t make any sense to me that he would be entirely aloof to the ancient people of India or Malaysia or anywhere else. The apostle Paul makes the claim in Romans 1:19 that all humanity has always had knowledge of God. This doesn’t mean that every culture has grasped God equally. But the Hindu Upanishads and the Koran are not entirely without truth. In fact, they do teach many of the same basic virtues that are found in Christianity, though their theological systems are completely different. So the fact that there are many truths to be found in other religions says to me that they must have received some kind of revelation from the mysterious entity we call God.

I think that God is a pragmatist with individuals just like he is with cultures. I don’t think God folds his arms and shuts off people who have unorthodox beliefs, but he tries to put the people and circumstances in their lives that will help them overcome the stumbling blocks in the unique spiritual journey that they’re on. The problem with heresy is not that God punishes or rewards people in a mechanistic fashion for their incorrect beliefs. Heresy is bad because it creates obstacles to the fullness of our encounter with God; our diminished image of God is the “punishment” for our incorrect belief.

In my understanding, orthodoxy refers to the range of beliefs that allow us the greatest possible intimacy with God. If I’ve got an inadequate understanding of Jesus’ cross or the nature of scripture or the moral frailty of humanity, it keeps me from going as deep as I could with God. The worse my heresy is, the more I’m talking to a straw man God that I’ve created instead of the real God. At the same time, I don’t think God is passively waiting for us to believe the right things about him in order to grow close to him. I believe that God is constantly improvising and revealing insights that help us get closer to him from where we are, even if we’ve hit our theological golf ball way off the fairway into a sand-trap somewhere. And I’ve also seen people with unorthodox beliefs being used powerfully by God. One of the most spiritually attuned people I’ve ever known could not believe in the physical resurrection of Christ and didn’t go into ordained ministry as a result, but that did not keep this person from experiencing amazing intimacy with God and mentoring dozens of others.

My assumption that God is a pragmatist shapes my ministry. As a pastor, I want to help people take the next step on the journey that they’ve already been walking with God for all of their lives. I don’t believe in telling people they’re completely wrong if they have very different beliefs than me even if I feel strongly about the truth of my beliefs. I would rather presume that God has some truth to share with me through every person I interact with. I would rather affirm everything I can affirm with integrity about other peoples’ beliefs than attack them and put them on the defensive. Now it’s true that I’m a lot more patient with people outside the church than I am with Christians whose harmful depictions of God are keeping other people out of the church. But I think this is consistent with Jesus’ approach of being gracious to the outsiders and harsh with religious leaders.

It’s an ongoing discernment process figuring out how much to accommodate others and how much to contradict them when I sense that their beliefs require correction. My tendency is to be a spineless chameleon and over-validate whoever I happen to be talking to. But God knows that I’m trying. And I feel pretty confident that he’s walking with me and improvising constantly as he continues the patient work of transforming me into what he wants me to be.

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