Who will be the watchman on the wall to warn when danger approaches the people of God?
The Bible tells two big stories. Each begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the face to the waters and each ends only when a new heaven and a new earth are cast above the cataclysmic end of the old.
One story is the story of God’s ever expansive grace and love, which however focused it may be on a person, or a people, or single message always breaks out to embrace more and more of humanity, more and more of human history. In this story God’s transcendence isn’t reduced to God’s immanence, it is fulfilled by the breadth of God’s involvement in humankind and all of creation. In this story Hittites and Canaanites live within God’s providence (Amos 9), and many peoples call Zion their birthplace (Psalm 87). In this story Assyria and Egypt are, with Israel, beloved of God (Isaiah 19:19) In this story Gentiles are the first to put their faith in a Jewish Messiah, and apostles are sent to the ends of the earth both physically and culturally to draw everyone into God’s Reign.
Yet there is another story as well. It is the story of how God’s love is manifest in God’s demand for human righteousness and justice. In this story humanity is involved in an epic quest for purity. It is a quest for a people of God (Israel) and then all the peoples of God to rid themselves of sin and break free from the power of sin. And that cannot happen so long as we worship idols, false gods, or any pale substitute for God conceived by the human imagination (Romans 1). That epic quest for righteousness and purity is continually threatened by the temptations of nations that worship alien gods in the form of idols. And those foreign nations, with their unrighteousness and alien idols are depicted as ever under God’s judgment as enemies to God’s project of creating a righteous people from the vagabond descendants of Isaac and Jacob.
In our time these two stories continue to exist side by side, weaving in and out of each other and winding through not only the life of the Jewish people, but also Christians (and perhaps even Muslims and others) who regard themselves as co-participants in both stories.
What makes the contemporary Christian manifestation of these two stories interesting (at least to a Christian theologian like myself) is that instead of fearing the concrete existence of foreign gods represented by idols (which is barely part of our social experience) we have focused on heretical doctrines promulgated by our fellow Christians. Ever since the Christian Reformation morphed into a thousand mutually exclusive Christian sects (divisions which the modern ecumenical movement has barely managed to address) the watchmen on the borders have become more like our theological police – ever vigilant for heresy.
This is particularly true of the descendants of fundamentalism, who understood themselves as guardians among the Protestants (Catholics had to fight their own battles) against the corrosive power of modernism. They saw, or thought they saw more clearly than the liberal theologians of the mainstream the danger of cultural compromise, and how the apparently harmless assumptions of the Enlightenment might render God impotent in an ultimately hollow victory for a self-enslaving humanity. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. . .”
Progressive theologians (the re-baptized descendants of liberalism) point out that evangelicals (as the more sophisticated descendants of the fundamentalists usually self-identify) can be myopic. But that is true of all of us. We are all bit players so focused on our part of the script we forget the whole story. The finitude of the theological mind, even under the powerful corrective influence of revelation (to borrow Calvin’s image), leaves plenty of room for mistakes. This is why we are warned by the Word to remove the log from our own eyes before we try to remove the splinter in others.
And that is why, in the controversy over whether Allah can be identified with the God and Father of Jesus Christ we should not be too dismissive of those whose distinctive calling is to warn against the dangers of foreign gods. Those of us who stand with open arms at the gates, believing that we stand in the great story of God’s inclusive love, need to remember that there is also a reason for the watchman on the walls, and a divine story of which they too are a part. We may even want to have a conversation about our different roles in this great drama, seeing as we all work for the same Author, who assures us that He, and not we, will write the ending.