Some years ago I wrote a newspaper column in which I asserted that scripture contains a progressive unveiling of God that finally achieves its fullness in Jesus Christ. At each step along the way God incrementally pushed human understanding in two directions: toward greater inclusiveness and greater love.
I was soundly beat upon the head and shoulders by an irate pastor’s letter to the editor who chastised me for suggesting that each word in the bible was not equally true and valid with every other word and for all times. There is nothing about progressive revelation in the bible, he said. To suggest such a thing is to deny the inerrancy of scripture, an apostasy not to be tolerated. There wasn’t much point in arguing with him on the pages of the local paper, and we never crossed paths for any face to face conversation. But he wasn’t the only one who had trouble with the idea.
Members of my congregation also had their doubts. It was during the advent of the gay issues that challenged many to take a hard look at who they would allow in and who they would keep out of their circle of acceptable others. Surely God’s push toward inclusiveness had limits. To be sure, we had broken down the walls that kept out people of other races and cultures, but we tended to replace them with attractive fences that one had to climb over to get in (You can come in if you promise to be just like us). We denied it of course, but the guilt that haunted the recesses of our minds did not let us get away with it. After all, hadn’t we recognized the legitimate ministry of women? What more could you want? I’m pleased to say that our congregation had the courage to make dramatic strides against the tide of beliefs held life long, but it’s not over.
Inclusiveness is all well and good as long as it’s about including Christians, and people who want to be Christians, in a society that is nominally Christian, at least in the minds of those who remember a former time that never really existed. How can one become more inclusive in a pluralistic society where many do not want to be included for some pretty darn good reasons? How can Christians be inclusive among people who believe that Christians are exclusive, bigoted, and superstitious? And, parenthetically, so are the hard core believers in every other religion. Just look around the world and see who the violent agents of despotism are: religious fanatics. Include me out!
Following God toward greater inclusiveness is not an easy path, but God never said it would be.
Following God toward greater love has it’s own obstacles. I was frequently challenged in my adult Christian education classes by tough minded people, mostly men, who equated greater love with passive submission. Either you stood up for yourself and defended what was yours, by force if necessary, or you became a doormat to be tromped on and over by anyone and everyone. It’s one way or the other. To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior was a wonderful thing. Everyone should do it. But to follow Jesus’ teaching and example by turning the other cheek, defeating evil with good, or giving up your life without a fight, that was just plain crazy. Too much love makes one a pansy. Be careful who you love, and don’t do too much of it.
We are called by God in Christ Jesus to be profligate in our love for others, as hard as that may be, but the progressive unveiling toward greater love found in scripture is more about God’s self revelation about God’s self. As God, especially through Christ, reveals a more and more powerful, unlimited love for creation, the echoes of God as angry, wrathful and vengeful recede farther into the background. Oddly enough, some people don’t want to give up on those images of God. The pastor who chastised me didn’t. An angry, wrathful God is what kept Christians in line: scared the hell out of them, kept them fearful about getting into heaven, and, therefore, made them more committed to trying to be a good Christian. That logic eludes me, but I’ve discovered an abundance of it buried in the minds of some of my own parishioners.
The flip side of that are those who have made the God of unlimited love into a lovable puppy dog or teddybear. In other words, they have done to God exactly what my tough minded men have claimed. Either you stand up and fight or become a doormat, and they have made God into a doormat: a very nice one certainly, it even says welcome on it. Just wipe the mud off your feet and come on in.
That is not the God of love revealed in scripture, but it is what happens when we interpret God in our own image. That, I think, is what has happened over the centuries and is faithfully recorded in scripture.
Whether we are or not, God is inclusive and God is love. How we progress in our understanding of that remains to be seen. What is clear is that we have a long way to go and are very slowly making progress, so slow that it’s sometimes hard to measure.