Saturday, March 31, 2007

The ambiguity of "deserve"

Since October 2003 non-religious-right evangelical Christian Fred Clark has been writing semi-regularly on his blog slacktivist about the Left Behind novel by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. So far I’ve read all of Clark’s pages written during 2003 and since the beginning of 2006. Clark mostly writes about a specific page or two, humorously and perceptively wondering why this book was so badly written in a style that talks about action instead of portraying action, with all the characters speaking the way the authors speak, is utterly unrealistic about human behavior, and pushes a theology that is so much about, “we know the truth, and you don’t,” without much justification for such pride. It’s engaging reading, Clark’s words that is. It may be a much more enjoyable way to read Left Behind just through Clark’s quoting and discussion of it. I’m sure I’ll get to 2004 and 2005 eventually. Currently Clark is up to page 258 in this book that amazon tells me has 352 pages. I wonder if Clark is on a pace to write more pages than the book has, but not so curious for me to count them.

Gee, if the plan is to go through all 12 books on this blog, Fred may need a replacement at some point.

Clark obviously knows theology, something he demonstrates in pointing out the flaws of the authors' brand of dispensationalism. At one point Clark used a standard description of salvation by God’s grace. He said Christians don’t deserve salvation. It all comes from God, as traditional Christianity says it does. God is everything. We are nothing. Jesus did everything to save us on the cross. We can add nothing. There was a time I just accepted that. Now I doubt any absolute like this. There is so much about traditional religion that is black and white thinking, something loved by human nature, but rarely an accurate depiction of anything.

Why didn’t God prevent this suffering or that? Because He can’t or He would have. Why not? Well it’s a long discussion that begins with God being whoever and whatever God is, not the perfection we want Him to be. Instead of what seem like obvious answers to me, tradition finds excuses to make God perfect despite appearances to the contrary, rationales for why any unsettling issue is part of the great plan that God knows and we can’t. Right.

I’ve lost count of how many ways such traditionalism unravels, unless one is committed to believe the best apologetics can do. One way is in considering this idea that grace is 100% God. The basic idea is understandable. I can’t earn God’s love. Well, that makes sense. How is it love if I have to earn it? Yet only a small change in the verb makes that so different. Do I have to allow God to love me? A Calvinist would say no, but must people would make the analogy to interhuman love where of course one can reject love or accept love. A parent may always love a child despite being rejected, but the power of that love changes if it’s rejected.

What’s more my dictionary’s definition of “deserve” is to be worthy, which is in turn defined as valuable or useful. Who decides that? If God loves an octopus, doesn’t that mean there’s something about that octopus that is worth God’s love?

There are so many points in theology where a word is used as a symbol that is more restricted than the word’s general meaning. We don’t deserve God’s love in the sense that we’ve done anything to earn that love, but we do deserve God’s love in some sense as God’s love for us proves. Otherwise God loves every rock and every bit of vapor in the universe, and theology is very far off the truth of God’s love.

Do you love me for who I am or for what I’ve done? I understand answering that as just the former, but to say the answer is neither is a very different thing. And what’s so wrong about saying, “Both”? It’s not like I can take back what I’ve done. Love grounded in what I’ve done doesn’t have to be conditional on it.

I helped people in my career and now in my volunteer work. Did I love all of my patients and clients? In some sense yes, but that was sometimes a very distant love that let me care for all of them, even when I didn’t like who they were and felt nothing positive about anything they had done except having come to me for help. My caring for them was more about me than them, but even then it wasn’t entirely about me. If these people were hamsters, I wouldn’t have done much for them.

One can say that God’s love is so much more than that, deity that He is. How? It must matter that people are human beings, not squirrels, not that rats with puffy tails aren’t cute, but our brains let us conceive of God and come to Him, even if everyone misunderstands that. I can’t imagine that God’s love is any different than what came through me as a professional, except that this is a minimum for what God’s love is. Why shouldn’t God’s love be more for those who do what pleases Him?

OK, so God is like a parent who doesn’t play favorites. He loves the prodigal son the same as the son who has stayed with Him, and God’s joy at the return of the prodigal confirms that instead of being a slight to the son who stayed, except in the inferior mind of that son. I understand this as a parent. I don’t allow favoritism exceeding say 20% toward one daughter than the other, not always the same one. They can each play me for more love if they want, for a greater expression of the love that is theirs whether they ask for it or not, but it all works out close enough to even.

Yet I never would say my daughters don’t deserve my love. Who they are to me deserves my love, even if they don’t understand that. I made them. Perhaps God doesn’t say that about us biologically, but He still may have made us spiritually, becoming the first element in the love between God and us, building on our need for love that perhaps biological evolution gives us. That’s more complicated than the Creator Father, but many things are more complicated than ancient simplicities.

I have a history of love with my daughters, much of which I’m sure they don’t remember, including those times when they were merely dependent on me, not capable of any selflessness in that, even though people often call just childish dependency love. My daughters brought out my love for them not because their looking toward me was loving, but because it was so needy, and they were who they were to me. That made them deserve my love.

So many people who recognize our not deserving God’s love as proper theology act and speak otherwise. The authors of Left Behind do that. Fred Clark comments on this a lot, how the heroes of Left Behind focus on their own selfish desire to be saved, then force a few others of their choosing to be saved. Not only do the authors believe one is saved by surrendering to some magic words and magic beliefs, the whole concept of the book is about those who deserved the Rapture vs. those who didn’t, and those who will be on board for the next bus to heaven vs. those who won’t. Meanwhile Jesus of the gospels taught that salvation was about giving up everything and following Him.

I wish theologians would allow that we deserve God’s love, or He wouldn’t love us. We can’t earn God’s love. We can’t force Him to love us. But we are not such scum to God that He will not love us, even those of us who come as close as they can to that. Still we have to be open to God’s love as any human being has to be open to be loved by another human being. And we can work at our relationship with God, to find love within us for Him, to deepen what we get from God, to increase the expression of love between us both ways.

I don’t know if it’s missing out on that process of building up love that is most responsible for people failing to live their lives to end poverty and/or live their lives to end strife. Whatever it is, something tells evangelicals that it doesn’t matter what they do, except when it does. The authors of Left Behind see accepting God’s grace as a one-time deal, and those who get in on the first phase get a better deal. Do they deserve that better deal? Their words would say no, but everything else would say yes, we believed the right way when you didn’t.

I admit it. In coming to believe that God is whoever and whatever God is, I believe that my beliefs are superior to anyone who has settled on one specific theology, a theology that is merely one possibility out of countless possibilities. But people with such a theology believe they are right, because God Himself revealed their theology to someone, because someone who thought through their theology was so enlightened, or because reason shows their theology or anti-theology to be flawless or at least the best bet. I’ve explored all the major theologies. They are artificial and not to be trusted. So I think the superior way is not to trust them.

Does that make me more deserving of God? Yes and no. In coming to God directly for help with what is true, I find I get more attention from God, deservedly so. But am I doing something anyone else can’t? Not to my knowledge, I’m not. And if God were not inclined to love me, could I demand that He love me? No, I have no sense that I deserve God’s love in that sense. There’s no getting around that “deserve” is an ambiguous word.

Theologies are ambiguous, in part because they use words like “deserve”. God is ambiguous. I suppose neither can be helped. What can be helped is deciding where I am and who I am in this fog, only it didn’t work well for me to do that on my own. I needed help. I prayed for help, as I was taught to do. I got help. Then I did better. That’s not so ambiguous.


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Micky said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

DavidD said...

Micky, apparently you both deserve to go to hell and deserve God's love. I don't know how important it is to see both sides of that, that someone both has earned his way to hell, but is valued enough by God to be forgiven. It's important to me that it's not as simple as people sometimes say.

Both human nature and our culture, even our religious culture, can send us away from God, whether we deserve it or not. It doesn't seem that God goes after everyone to bring them back to Him. Is it just the deserving who are saved? That doesn't seem to be the case.

Maybe it's a cooperative effort. That's the possibility that gets lost between giving God all the credit and saying it all depends on the human being to deserve God's acceptance or rejection. Reality is not all one way or the other.