The timing was good—around the anniversary of 9/11—to read R. Kirby Godsey's new book, Is God a Christian? (Mercer Univ. Press, 2011). It's a great question, requiring us all—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—to ask some important questions about identity, otherness, and theology (a subject of interest to me for a number of reasons, including the fact that I'm writing on the subject as well).
Because Godsey is a Christian, he says that God isn't.
Godsey understands that Christian identity, when best understood, involves the realization that God is bigger than any single religion, and that Jesus' core mission involved helping people understand that. Here's how he says it:
... we Christians have to come to grips with the reality that there is not much that appears exclusive about the mind or the actions of Christ. Beggars, lepers, adulterers, and Samaritans were all welcome. Jesus broadened the circle of God's embrace. Insofar as the Christian religion has come to offer itself as the exclusive bag of answers to life's most difficult questions or a proprietary window through which the light of God shines on the human race, Christianity has simply become one more world religion competing for center stage.
When Godsey speaks against Christian exclusivity—which he does passionately and often, he doesn't mean that Christians should love Jesus less. He isn't arguing that Christians should dump Jesus as their exclusive commitment and "date around."
He's saying that to truly and deeply love Jesus, to be rightly and fully committed to his message and mission, Christians must resist the temptation to let the boundaries of their own religion define the circle of God's embrace. Christians must do this, not as an act of compromise with pluralism, but as an act of faithfulness to Jesus, who proclaimed in word and deed that God's love does not push anyone outside its infinite circumference.
As someone born and raised in a conservative Evangelical/Fundamentalist context, I know how scary and offensive Godsey's proposals will sound to many. Their great concern is that anyone who relaxes claims to absolute exclusivity takes one giant step down a slippery slope, leading toward an abyss of compromised, lukewarm, lackadaisical relativism. That's why I'm glad Godsey addressed relativism in statements like these:
We cannot create constructive avenues for authentic conversation when we simply adopt a relativist point of view.
Choosing between exclusiveness and relativism is a false choice.... Neither of these alternatives offers a foundation for relating to other faiths in a fashion that offers a hopeful way forward.
Instead of exclusivism or relativism, Godsey argues for "covenantal commitment." When people enter such commitments, he says, "the meaning of their presence on earth" is transformed. To relativize such commitments—to suggest that one is as good as another—is something a person who makes such a commitment with appropriate depth and passion would never do.
One thinks of a relativist wife who says, "Yes, I married John, but he's just another man, and all men are the same, so it didn't really matter who I chose." In contrast, one thinks of an absolutist husband who says, "I married Jane, which means that I consider all other women to be ugly, stupid, and abhorrent." But Godsey's idea of covenant commitment allows one to say, "I have given my heart to my spouse, and I love my spouse as I love no other person. I assume you have the same kind of devotion to the subject of your love."
"Moving beyond the alternatives of relativism and absolutism," Godsey says, "enables us to meet one another with a new spirit, respecting the diverse covenantal commitments that define our lives. Our commitments differ. Those differences are authentic and real. Respecting another person's commitment does not mean adopting another person's commitment." That understanding doesn't prohibit evangelism: instead, it expects a lover to be irrepressible in speaking of the beloved. But it moves evangelism away from insult and attack on the other.
Reflecting on Godsey's heartfelt, intelligent, and articulate proposal, I wondered whether the problem with the statement "God is a Christian" may not be that it claims too much but rather that it claims too little. In the incarnation, we Christians are not inspired to see merely God's solidarity with one religion—any more than we see in it God's solidarity with one gender, one nationality, one economic class, or one race. No: in the incarnation, we see God's solidarity with all people—of all religions. In fidelity to our own Christian covenant commitment, so should we.
Commitment beyond absolutism and mutual respect beyond relativism. Difference without division. Acceptance and respect without blurring differences. This is the complex challenge of faithful one-anotherness, an art that is new for many of us...new and desperately needed as we look back on the last ten years and look ahead to the next.
For more conversation on Kirby Godsey's Is God a Christian? visit the Patheos Book Club here.
9/12/2011 4:00:00 AM