For a long time, people have come to Church in the Cliff to deconstruct the religion they received earlier in their lives or, perhaps, the kind of civil religion that dominates our culture. We haven’t always been good about helping people reconstruct. Our hope has been that people were doing that on their own, through our conversation. However, one of the things that came out of our planning retreat was a desire to put something more concrete on the table, to give people a place to land after the deconstruction. In response, as one proposal for how we might reconstruct, we have spent the last few weeks talking about John Caputo’s “weak theology.”
Caputo offers his theology in opposition to what he calls “strong theology.” Strong theology is built on the skeleton of ancient Greek philosophy that is focused on “being.” God is the thing that most is and everything else is less so. I know that sounds weird and abstract, and it is, so maybe it should concern us if this is at the heart of the way we think about God. But let me see if I can make it a little more familiar.
Probably all of us grew up with the idea that God is perfect. It sounds reasonable. God is better than the best thing we can imagine. Our task is to try to approximate that perfection as much as we can, so whatever God is becomes our target, our goal. Now, technically, God’s perfection (and God’s being in general) is of a different order than the world of our experience, so it is technically inconceivable and indescribable. Yet, we have spent millennia conceiving and describing God in terms that match our experience. So, when we talk about God’s perfection (known in the theology biz as “immutability”), we talk of God’s perfect wisdom, perfect will, perfect goodness, perfect truth, and perfect love. But we also – and I daresay disproportionately – talk of God’s perfect power. This is where strong theology paints itself into a corner.
If God’s power is perfect, able to enact his (and this God is always a he) perfect will perfectly, then that leaves little room for our involvement. If God has all the power, then we have none, which makes God responsible for everything, not us. Because this seems absurd, we tend to insist on our free will, in part because we experience ourselves as making choices, but also because we are told that we are, in fact, responsible for all the evil in the world. As we understand it, there has to be evil in order for us to have free will. Yet, we still speak of God intervening in our lives. We pray to God to do so. If God does – in fact, if God even can – then God is again responsible for everything. That is, if God picks and chooses when to allow evil to happen, then God is responsible for all of it. We rely on God’s perfect wisdom to assert that there must be some reason for these decisions, some reason we can’t understand, but I will side with Dostoevsky’s Ivan and say that there is no greater good that makes the torture and death of a child okay. Caputo: “But right from the start, the one thing that constantly accompanied the faith in God’s merciful and compassionate power of intervention in human affairs is the sense of confusion, even dumb-foundedness, at the regularity with which that compassion is contradicted by the empirical record of nonintervention in the face of violence and injustice.” Unfortunately, our tradition has erased any alternatives; it is the only way we have of thinking about God.
Caputo suggests that we think, instead, of God as an event. That is, rather than concern ourselves with God’s existence, God’s being, we think about God happening. Specifically, he suggests that we understand God as a call to which we might respond. Caputo: “I am trying to displace thinking about God as the highest and best thing that is there by starting to think that God is the call that provokes what is there, the specter that haunts what is there, the spirit that breathes over what is there.” This is a beautifully weak God. God does not have the power to bend the world to God’s perfect will, but rather cries out to us in hope. God doesn’t exist; God insists.
Inherent in God’s call is both a promise and a risk. A key feature of an event is that we don’t know how it will turn out. As Caputo says, God has a plan and it just might work! We don’t know. And most of whether it will work or not depends on how we respond to the call. Caputo: “The voice of God, the Word of God, the Spirit of God, is the call that calls to us without causality, power, or prestige, calling upon what is best in us.”
Of course, another given in the Christian tradition is that human beings are intrinsically evil – there is no “best in us” to call. We were created good, but then the talking snake and the apple and blah, blah, blah – we’re terrible. Not only is this psychologically damaging, it doesn’t match our experience. We know that we do both good and bad things. According to strong theology, God is responsible for all the good stuff and we take the blame for all the bad. In weak theology, there is only the call. We can respond in fear or in hope.
I think a new article emerges every day trying to figure out how so many Christians supported an obviously morally bankrupt man for the presidency. I’m not sure why it surprises us; it is the incarnation of strong theology. They seek power rather than virtue, a seat at Trump’s table rather than God’s table. I’m not saying that just to be critical, but to show where this theology leads. It’s inevitable. We reproduce what we rehearse. If God’s perfection lies in God’s perfect power, then we will all jockey to be in proximity to power.
If God’s perfection lies, not in power, but in vulnerability, what kind of world might we construct? Weak theology proposes a sacred anarchy in which God stands with those who have been marginalized. Rather than seeking power, we might give it up. Like God, we might stand with the impoverished, the weakened, the disdained and despised. We might even become those people, just as Jesus did. That won’t be easy. It is easier to live into fear, to dive into the illusion of power, to try to control our fate and the fate of others so that we can’t be harmed. It is far harder to live into hope, to assume the best in ourselves and others, to construct a world that nurtures what is best. But that is the call.
I hope that this opens some space for rethinking God. As I see it, many of the problems some of us have had with church and faith, many of the things we are trying to deconstruct, stem from the flawed assumptions of strong theology. There are a lot of ways to deconstruct those assumptions beyond Caputo’s proposal, but I think it will be worth sticking with this one for a bit, especially with Advent beginning this Sunday. The season of Advent is a clear image in our tradition of the event of God happening in our midst. It is a time to prepare ourselves to stand with this vulnerable child born to marginalized parents, God incarnated in weakness.