Openness to God and God’s World


USA Today reports:

Singer and performer Jon Steingard made a dramatic revelation, announcing via Instagram last Wednesday that he “no longer believes in God.”

Steingard is the frontman for Hawk Nelson, a Christian rock and pop punk music group. In his post, he shared nine screenshots where he explains why he has changed his beliefs.

Reading the instragram posts, a few thoughts came to mind, as a liberal Protestant, as I reflect on the loss of faith by a popular evangelical Christian music artist. They are not meant to either debate Jon or invalidate ex evangelical’s experiences of the church. They are more a reflection on my experience of church and my sense of Christian claims when speaking of God.

He mentions growing up in the church, that the church was his whole life, and that this was to protect him from “the world.” While almost any study says active participation in the church by the whole of the family is required to pass on faith to your children, I’m not certain that every moment in the church makes sense. The logic of it is to protect yourself from “the world’, which he puts in quotation marks.

Growing up Presbyterian, I never was told nor was it implied that “the world” was some scary outside force to be protected from. Rather it was God’s realm as much as every area of life is. There was no juxtaposition between the church and the world, both were places where God’s redemptive work is afoot. The world was to be embraced and lived into as Christians. So whether I was in the Scouts, in church, in school, in meeting friends of other religions, I didn’t need protection. I needed a certain kind of openness.

That openness to God’s world is an important part of any healthy faith. But as I’ve gotten older I’d put it more strongly. Often areas outside of the church are often a surer place to see God’s saving purposes. There are any number moments from climate change activists to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the simple enjoyment of music and nature, to the love of family and friends, to the LGBT movement, to good books, to reading sound reflections in others that can help us more clearly identify the good in the world. The church can do this as well, but it’s often marginalized communities who have greater clarity in this and therefore they serve, as a judgment on the church when they see injustices the church is oblivious to.

A good church experience will be one that listens to such judgment and remains open to God’s promptings in the world. The question is how do you know it is God? To go with Plato, what if God is to be identified with the good, the true, and the beautiful? To encounter God then is to encounter such realities and their grounding. Can we trust human beings to apprehend the good, the true, the beautiful?  For God talk to be meaningful, we have to have some apprehension of the good. Otherwise what do any of our hymns and scriptures mean when we praise God’s care, love, and support if we in fact do not have any idea of what that looks like?

This is not to be pollyanish. Human self deception on these matters knows no bounds. Especially if self interest is involved, if protections of privilege based on race, class, religion, ability, certainly wealth are concerned. A society that could have justified slavery after all, seems far from the good in life. But one indication that such a society could be judged, according to Michael Parenti, is the fact that in every time and place there has always been a group that have lodged their complaints against slavery. Slaves. The fear of escaping slaves and in particular, slaves in revolt, kept white southerners awake at night.

To not have noticed this is an act of bad faith. Good faith seeks to understand the perspective of the other, in this case, the slaves. According to Henry Nelson Wieman, when I begin to truly engage the other as a person, in their fullness and uniqueness and value, the kinds of oppression we routinely tolerate in our society would be called into judgment. Once we know the moral law, we are convicted by it, according to the Apostle Paul. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will be confronted by such a moral law.

To take this principle further, we have a partial existence. We have a partial set of circumstances, life experiences, backgrounds, etc. According to Josiah Royce, this is such an intolerable limit on how we relate to the world that we yearn for something more complete, more whole, more representative of reality writ large. Or we should in any case.

Upon that principle, our attempt to engage the world and other people, becomes a religious responsibility, because it’s the only way I can possible be transformed into a wider view of things. I  have to assume there is that of God in people, places, in knowledge, in experiences I have never had before. And if I engage this, I too will encounter God. There is no area of life where more, more data, more experiences, more variety won’t in fact be better, if it it can integrated into a larger and more inclusive vision.

Thus, the very attempt by Jon’s community to limit his encounters, to not engage in difference, to simply repeat the faith commitments of his church, was evidence of a lack of faith. And when Jon began to encounter this and ask probing and relevant questions of the Christian faith, he was told to go back to the pre-approved answers of his community. It’s become clear this was not enough nor should it be.

I won’t go every question but I’ll highlight a few.

There were things that just didn’t make sense to me,” he wrote. “If God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Can he not do anything about it? Does he choose not to? Is the evil in the world a result of his desire to give us free will? OK then, what about famine and disease and floods and all the suffering that isn’t caused by humans and our free will?”

I think we can ask a few question. Is love, goodness, truth, and beauty a reality? Yes. Then we can affirm them as divine. Are they all powerful? There is no indication, no empirical evidence that indicates that they are. But we can analyze how in fact goodness is created in the world. And then we can do something about it. Humans are able to provide relief in famine, cure diseases, create barriers to prevent flooding. They can attend to suffering and act to prevent it. And these are all good, that is to say they are all expressions of God in the world. A God who acts in and through the resources of our world, including yes, us. We are the hands and feet of God in the world.

The second set of questions had to with problem passages in the Bible. Why the violence, why misogyny, why conquests, why fear of the other? To read the Bible is to confront such passages. It may even be to reject them which is another reason Jon’s faith unraveled. The Bible had become the object of devotion, not the God that the Bible testifies to. A human testimony, showing signs of its situatedness and limits was too much for him. And that is not a problem on his part. It’s a problem of a certain view of inspiration held by fundamentalists.

What if we read the Bible to find counter narratives? They do exist. Of women heroes, of same sex love, of non violence, of folks who questioned with God, debated God, even wrestled with God. And if what if we read all the stories, the good, the bad, the ugly, the different, as expressions of being human? Would it seem not divine enough? But if we encounter God through stories, through people, through life, such a division could not hold. Our openness to the world should also be an openness to our past, our traditions, and yes our sacred scriptures and the humanity expressed in this.

Steingard said that while he sees this decision as meaning he can no longer be involved with Hawk Nelson, he is “open to the idea that God is there” despite his doubts.

“I’d prefer it if he was (there),” Steingard wrote. “I suspect if he is there, he is very different than what I was taught. I know my parents pray that God reveals himself to me. If he’s there, I hope he does.”

My guess is he is right. That such a God will be very different and even a bit more inclusive than what he grew up in. And given that openness my bet is he will find God and better descriptions of God, even as he lives and moves and acts within the very being of God.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings


Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

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