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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  • Bill Payne

    As a Protestant, I want to go to scripture. What do the scriptures say? You can make an argument that all will be saved through Christ provided that they do not reject Christ. That is based on a selected reading of texts. The larger witness of scripture does not support that narrow reading. In the end, you are saying you believe what you want to believe based on reason, not scripture or tradition. That is very postmodern. Second, God is contextual. God revealed Godself to Israel in terms of Israel categories. However, God did not reveal Godself simply to say hi. He called Israel from the other nations in order to create a people who honored his name and could be a means through which he reached to the other peoples of the world. In so doing, he “saved” them from paganism and false religion. Ultimately, God made covenant with Israel in order to work through Israel to accomplish his mission in the world. That mission is supremely revealed in Jesus. Jesus tells the church to take him to the world. It tells us to make disciples of the nations and to witness to him in word, sign and deed. If all people are already saved, the apostolic calling of the church makes no sense. In fact, the evangelistic mission of the church should be abandoned. I think you would enjoy reading “Dominus Jesus.” In light of Vatican II, the RCC has strongly spoken on the issue you have discussed. Blessings and grace.

    • Christianity is just another in a long line of Greco-Roman mystery cult rituals, syncretized with a little Judaism.

      […] they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us.

      Plato (4th century BCE) The Republic. Book II.

      And no, God didn’t magically “reveal’ himself to the Hebrews; he was plagiarized from Ugaritic clay tablets.

      Mark Smith (2001) The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press.

      • Bill Payne

        Ist, after the edict of Milan, the Western church did syncretize with pagan religions as they were uncritically brought into the church through degree and not evangelism. The same thing has happened in other parts of the world where Christianity rode in on the tides of strong political powers. In many parts of the world, it has resulted in folk religion that is not compatible with the faith of the scriptures. That is why I am Protestant. We rejected all of that and have re-emphasized the example of the NT church and scripture. I note that the global renewal of Christianity is via evangelism. Largely the new faith is Pentecostal in form. Pentecostalism operates with the indigenous worldview and does not require that the people change culture to become Christ followers, It does require that they change orientation and allegiance. 2nd, the trustworthiness of agenda driven historical criticism to accurately capture the the context of the Jewish and Christian world has been largely questioned. Today, few question the Davidic kingdom. Most acknowledge that an exodus of some sort happened. They have shown the Jewish influences on Ancient Egyptian proverbs, the existence of the Torah in the first temple era (silver scrolls), and a plethora of extra biblical sources to support that there was an ancient Israel that worship YHWH. Yes, God’s self-revelation developed and the people grew in their understanding of God and the covenant. The bible affirms this. Still, Judaism and Christianity are social facts with historical foundations. Since Protestants with a high view of scripture value the bible as revelation and authority, your critique has little bearing. By the way, my office is situated between eight biblical scholars of some renown. They have all written on this topic and all of them would do a very good job of correcting your source. Since I am not a biblical scholar, I will hold my peace.

        • Religions constantly syncretize. How do you suppose the Norse mythology of an underworld realm of the damned ruled by Loki’s daughter Hell got into most Bible translations?

          • Bill Payne

            Ahh, it did not get in the bible. The word hell does not exist in the original translations. The Bible refers to hades, tartarus, the lake of fire, and a place of judgment. Any of those can loosely be translated Hell in English. It is an unfortunate translation. Most Greeks of NT times believed that the Greek place of the dead (Hades) was ruled over by Hades and that Thanatos (the god of death) reaped souls. Some syncretized Satan into Hades and make him the ruler over hell and the damned in the same way as Hades ruled the underworld. Interestingly, in Rev 20:14 Hades and Thanatos (Hell and death) are thrown into the Lake of Fire. God wins!

          • Hell is in most translations, so Norse mythology did get into the Bible. I’m not sure how you can deny something like that.

            Hell or Hades, it doesn’t really matter much. One is Norse mythology, the other Greek mythology regarding Zeus’ brother Hades.

            If you noticed, we now know the world is round. There is no flat earth, and there is no underworld realm of Hades or Hell below our feet.

          • If the word “hell” got in the Bible and its etymological origin is Norse mythology, that just means that a Germanic word got used to translate the words Gehenna from Hebrew and Hades from Greek. It says nothing about the influences on Judaism or Christianity.

          • “Hell is in most translations, so Norse mythology did get into the Bible. I’m not sure how you can deny something like that.”

            If you instinctively steer clear of primitive tropes, all the better for you.

            But why fixate on such a meagre revelation?

  • Bill Payne

    By the way, there is a position that is between the polar extremes that you offered. It is called praeparatio evangelica. This position values the positive nature of human religion and the final authority of the Christ event.

    • I’m interested in learning more about that. It sounds like the position I would end up landing on.

  • Frank6548

    If you accept the Christian narrative it, by default, invalidates all others.

  • Author C N Sensse

    From “Really Knowing God.”
    The God is not interested in manipulating you. He is only
    interested in you having His peace. He desperately wants you to know Him, love
    Him, serve Him, dwell with Him (spiritually) and enjoy His peace, FOR YOUR
    ULTIMATE BENEFIT. He is NOT sitting up
    there on His throne waiting for you to screw up so he can reach down and slap you
    around because you made a mistake.

  • I’m glad your faith in Christ is deep and that you are open to draw those in need into the wonder of God. That’s so important. Makes me think of a poem I once read.

    But for me at this stage in my life (I’m 67 and exhausted spiritually from spending 51 years opposing the despairing news of Augustinian-Calvinism in its various forms, even now again amongst some Methodists:-(, it seems a lost cause.

    I’ve been a youth pastor, elder, etc.

    And I still am a theistic seeker, but finally have admitted to myself that it’s unlikely God loves humans
    because so many Christians in the present and the past claim that isn’t true
    (from Augustine to Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Whitfield, Jonathan Edward, Hodge, Piper, Sproul, now even the Billy Graham Association, etc.

    Here and there is a lonely counter voice like Wesley in his famous sermon and in his personal letter where he said he would rather be an atheist than believe in the Calvinistic tyrant version of God.

    But surely if God loves all of us finite humans, God wouldn’t leave billions of us at the cruel mercy of denominations and countless churches who claim God only cares about a limited number of us.

    This is really weird. About 5 years ago when I also reached a despair line, I came across a Methodist theologian (better left unnamed since this is from a private email exchange), who when I shared my anguish,
    shocked me by stating his view of God which almost out-Calvined Calvin:-(

    Christianity seems to be tragic…

    I wish it could be true like I thought in my younger days.

    • The true Christianity is the one that never stops being crucified by the fake, triumphalist, imperialist one.

    • Jerry Lynch

      I am 67 and have mostly been a dirty, rotten scoundrel most of my life; not self-deprecation but just the tragic fact. I have court records to prove it!

      For me, God does not leave “billions of us at the cruel mercy of denominations and countless churches who claim God only cares about a limited number of us” our created self does this. Who we are is not what we made of ourselves; this is a false god. What we have made of ourselves, straying from the elemental self of his creation, is the root of all our earthly woes, for this is our fundamental separation from God.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Jeez, Louise, where have you been all my life? Strictly speaking from a spiritual perspective, of course. (Tricky times for such sentiments.)

    I was a cradle Catholic. After getting sober and being finally introduced to a whole other world of spiritual possibilities, I went on a three year mission of intense study to destroy where I could this present day absurdity of the Church. Not Jesus, not the Christ: the local pastors, denominations, and televangelists. As a cradle Catholic, I was new to the Bible when initiating this ground war against what I framed as Prospertarians and Apostolics. I got heavily into Zen Buddhism and the Tao. Then a few rounds from this pragmatist God loaded with Fairy Dust shrapnel ripped into my lines. The first was this from the Tao: “Perfect kindness acts without thinking of kindness. (“Mercy, not sacrifice” and the Beatitudes.) Then from Paramahansa Yoganada: Have no image (a summary), which appeared to be the true Christ-journey (and end purpose of the Twelve Steps). So I opened to hear C.S. Lewis say, “”The more God takes us over, the more our true selves we become.” Though I could not neatly knit it all together, there was a sensed rightness and interdependency there. The war was over.

    I, too, tend to take, or rather be prepared to take, whatever anyone says as possibly holding some needed element of truth. I, too, somewhat fawn in this regard, having the least patience with my fellow Christians. As it should be? No, just as I am.

  • pl1224

    Morgan, thank you for writing such a beautiful, powerful, cogent, loving, faith-filled essay. I’m sending it to the rector of my church as I know she’ll appreciate your words as much, if not more, than I do. (Our Rev. Dr. Marjorie is an utterly unique, singularly wonderful priest and human being!) I’m also going to print your essay out and keep it where I can read it frequently. Again, thank you so much for your wisdom and humanity.

  • Defensor Autem

    More praise for a thoughtful and insightful article. There’s no way anyone has it fully wrong; we are all made in the image and likeness of God. I think that it would stand to reason that simply through this factor everyone has some form of truth revealed to them. As a cradle catholic myself, this realization has helped me validate my own faith as well as appreciate those of others. The way I had it put to me by the sisters in religion class, even a person who is born, lives, and dies in the wilderness of Africa may be saved. The law is on our hearts and the existence of God is wonderfully rational.

    • Josh Magda

      “The way I had it put to me by the sisters in religion class, EVEN a person who is born, lives, and dies in the wilderness of Africa may be saved.”

      Describe to me what it is they need to be saved from.

      BTW, God apparently had a “thing” for Africa when She created human beings within its bosom. Maybe you and your sisters just need to be saved from your own superiority complex. Maybe people in Africa are doing just fine, with or without the exterior pronouncements and colonial approval of a roman mothership.

      • Defensor Autem

        From sin. We all need to be saved from sin. And I’m interested where you are getting a superiority complex from. It sounds like you had a pretty poor past interaction or relationship with religion and for that I am sorry. I will say that going off in a fit of rage on a harmless blog post is not going to be very productive. The fear aspect you afore mentioned while unfortunately present is hardly the focus of orthodoxy. Neither does orthodoxy mean everyone is the same. Orthodoxy means we all share the same beliefs and traditions. I hope you find some peace my man.

        • Josh Magda

          I am a religious person so don’t assume that my difference with you stems from some inadequacy you’d like to ascribe to my past, or a purported lack of peace in my present. Let’s just stick with metaphysics and not try to be psychic.

          Part of being saved from sin, or separation, is being saved from God conceptions like “God needed to kill himself in order to forgive us.” What you probably mean is that we need to be “saved” from whatever unpleasant thing DoomGod is going to do to us (or allow us to do to ourselves) for the dual “crimes” of a) being born and b) being imperfect, fallible, creatures.

          If your religious beliefs are not rooted in fear, then answer me this question: what would change about your faith beliefs or practice, if when you died, nothing (much) happened, like in the original Biblical conception of “existence” after death? Not just you, but every human being. Good, bad, upright, and ugly, it’s sheol for all of us. Would you still be Christian? Why or why not?

          When you die, Defensor Autem is gone. Does this thought frighten you, or intrigue you? Be honest.

          • Defensor Autem

            Well I think the thought of death can be frightening, intriguing, and exciting all in one! But I do appreciate a sincere question as opposed to insult and I’m very well ready to follow it down the rabbit hole.

            If nothing happened after death, as in we all went to some sort of “field of asphodel” or something of that nature, well I really don’t think at this point I would change.

            The reason I personally following the teachings of my faith is they have led me to happiness. I am in a university currently and in this university I am part of a fraternity. I have been a part of all manner of debauchery and drunkenness and any other vice you could imagine one in my place to have. It was great fun for a while, but the emptiness and longing which came from it grew exponentially which lead me back to the Church. Under her guidance, I am immeasurably happier and enjoy life significantly more.

            So I would say what I do on Earth is not entirely motivated by a promise to go to heaven, but rather because I have a much stronger sense of fulfillment with life.

          • Josh Magda

            I don’t believe in the sincerity of your response on death. There is one universal response of an ego to death, and that is fear, manifesting itself in various kinds of evasion, outright denial, and unconvincing semantic-conceptual efforts to “sweeten the sour apple.” Neither by believing in corpses popping out of tombs, nor by congregating with those of similar beliefs, nor through the application of glitter to the forehead to “celebrate that we are stardust” from the materialist end, can the ego successfully mask the fact of its mortality, nor its emphatic preference that it not have to die.

            My ego is terrified of dying and so is yours.

            I think you have a lot of growing up to do, but then again we all do, and I’m glad you’re happy and acknowledging your right to be happy and healthy during this Lifetime. That matters.

          • Defensor Autem

            I think you presume to know far more than you do about the nature of death. I think death for the sake of separation from people in your life is scary. Death for the sake of ego or for the sake of ceasing to exist is not so scary. I don’t let death hold the power of fear over me. I aim to let very little have the power of outright fear over me.

            I believe I am not afraid. Am I kidding myself? You may say so as is your right, though I think I am not as is mine. I do appreciate the semblance of an honest, tame response though.

          • Josh Magda

            If you’re not afraid then you’re a psychopath, and we should probably be afraid of YOU.

            However, I think you are afraid. So it’s all good. 🙂

          • Defensor Autem

            I believe a psychopath is quite different than one who is not afraid. However for the sake of this discussion, I’ll leave that one be.

            I’ll leave it by paraphrasing Chesterton. Man may not fear that which he faces for that would be the end of him. However man must retain a certain amount of wonder and awe (aka fear) in order for his story to be of any interest.

            Fear not death, but wonder at the mystery or lack therein it provides.

          • Josh Magda
          • Josh Magda

            You’ll have to pardon Josh’s ego. It goes through a cyclical death-rebirth process like this, usually multiple times a month. Last night Josh went to the fridge and just randomly started singing:

            Something’s going to harm you,
            Yes while I’m around!

            A parody of Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. It’s sad because just like real Life, something does indeed harm the cast, just as soon as they stop singing!


            I see Josh is going out with a blaze of glory this time.

            -The Big G

            PS Actually, this is still just Josh’s ego. HellOOOOOOO out there!

        • Josh Magda

          You know what, you’re right. This isn’t going to go anywhere, so don’t answer. You can believe what you want. If you all want to believe you’re part of God’s favorite religion, just do it, but this time try to leave the rest of the World out of it. I’m tired of Living in the aftermath of DoomGod and watching people suffer because of a ****ing religion.

          I’ll see you at the food bank, aka the further shore of the ecumenically possible.

  • DC Rambler

    Very nice..The thing is, we are all free to tell our own story and have a unique spiritual experience. There are universal truths that transcend any one faith tradition and for anyone to claim that they alone know the way to the divine is arrogant and divisive.

  • Delamination

    I am not sure where the “infinitely patient” idea comes from. From what I read in the Bible, the Israelites were getting killed, invaded and exiled all the time when God finally lost his patience. Revelation kind of sounds like God losing his patience with humanity, too.

  • Josh Magda

    “In my understanding, orthodoxy refers to the range of beliefs that allow us the greatest possible intimacy with God.”

    Oh please, give me a break.

    “The worse my heresy is, the more I’m talking to a straw man God that I’ve created instead of the real God.”

    You can’t be serious. Heresy means “other belief.” If G-d were interested in uniformity we’d all be single-celled organisms, or better yet, viruses. The viral god of uniformity is the one that so-called orthodoxy has always sought… one that it can define and then use to control other people’s experience. Why does it do so? I’ll give you a hint: It begins with F and ends with ear. So-called orthodoxy is terrified of God disappearing because it thinks that God is some boundary line, somewhere.

    I think we can safely say, that mystics are religious/spiritual people that have boundary issues. If the mystics are right, you know, those fiends in every tradition who liberally take Big Momma’s Magic Eraser to our idolatrous boundary systems, so-called orthodoxy is fretting itself into a ninny over nothing.

    Jack Nicholson said something in the first Batman movie, that readily applies to so-called orthodoxy:

  • Josh Magda

    I’m not interested in a uber-boring god that gives his favorite tribe the biggest slice of the cherry pie while everyone else gets to lick the batter off the spoon. Morgan and company, you apparently have the oozy warm center of the pie, or maybe the corner piece (my dad’s favorite) with everyone else in a (relatively speaking) “outer crumbly darkness.”

    I’m sick to death of Christian’s fear-based superiority complexes and pray fervently that every form of triumphalist religion dies a complete and lonely death in the very near future.

    Nothing in Jesus’ Life, birth, death, and resurrection suggests that God is the kind of Reality that a) either has a favorite tribe b) would give ANY group of people “more” of Godself than another. Jesus’ entire Being is a Living refutation of delusional favoritist ideology.